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March 26, 2024

The state of the State

Listening to yet another debate recently on the parlous state of the nation’s public finances and the implications of that for the future of public services, the only conclusion I could draw was that few people, if any, truly understand how our public finances work. All of which is very unhelpful when trying to make sense of the true state of affairs in our public services. Which is why The State of the State report caught my eye. An exhaustive polling exercise of those who run our public services and those who use them. Some interesting findings.

Deloitte. and Reform

Full report

Executive summary

The State of the State provides a view of the public sector from the people who use it and the people who run it. The report blends two forms of research by bringing together a survey of the UK public alongside interviews with government leaders. 

Our survey, conducted by Ipsos UK, polled 5,815 UK adults about their attitudes to government and public services. We also interviewed more than 100 public sector leaders including permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants, police chief constables, council chief executives, university vice chancellors and NHS leaders, in all nations of the UK. 

Key finding from our survey and interviews:

The public expects big government to continue – but could be in for a shock. 

Our survey found 59 per cent of the public think government spending will stay at current levels or go up in the years ahead. However, our interviews found many public sector leaders anticipate spending restraint or cuts in the next Parliament due to the state of the public finances. 

Immigration, infrastructure and NHS waiting lists have grown as public concerns.

Our poll of public priorities has seen NHS waiting lists and the state of the country’s infrastructure rise by seven percentage points each over the last year. Concerns about immigration have gone up six percentage points, putting it level with climate change as a public priority. 

Government needs to prioritise so its aspirations match its resources. 

Officials across the public sector told us that government needs to prioritise in line with the resources it has available. After years of tactical responses to external events such as the COVID pandemic and cost of living crisis, many public sector leaders hope to see a sector-wide, long-term strategy that is grounded in the reality of the public finances. 

People want public services they can access and complain to when things go wrong – they are less interested in how services are organised. 

Our poll explored peoples’ experiences of public services and found their top priorities for improvement were speed of access and accountability. They are far less interested in how services are organised and do not appear to be demanding more choice. 

Digital maturity comes with mature digital problems. 

As the public sector continues its digital transformation, leaders told us that improving data architecture will be critical for future progress. Several argued that more directive leadership from the centre may also be needed to accelerate change in public services. 

A ’decluttering’ for business and continued investment in skills could support economic growth. 

Leaders across the sector told us that the interface between business and government needs simplifying so businesses can better understand the support available to them. Many added that recent investment in further education has been welcome – but it needs to grow as part of a wider package including a joinedup education and skills strategy with lifelong learning and employability at its core. 

The power of procurement is coming of age. 

Leaders see the new Procurement Act in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as a huge opportunity for the public sector to drive up value for taxpayers’ money and become more entrepreneurial in its work with suppliers. There is also significant enthusiasm for the sector to generate greater social value from its spending power. 


Conclusions: lessons for the state from within 

Our interviews with 100 public sector leaders surfaced their own lessons for the state, from within. Collectively, the interviews point to these five recommendations: 

Eliminate institutional drags on productivity. 

Boosting productivity within the public sector should start with addressing ways of working inherent in the sector that drag it down. That means greater prioritisation, longer-term funding arrangements and spending plans that focus on outcomes. Leaders can also influence productivity gains by the tone and expectations they set. 

Reset the system to end crisis mode.

Much of the public sector has spent years delivering tactical responses to successive disruptions from external forces. As such, the public sector needs to reset for greater resilience, longer-term thinking and a joinedup, sector-wide plan for the future. 

Make delivery the north star for reform. 

Officials believe the sector’s accountability, scrutiny and risk environment make getting things done – whether major projects or business-as-usual – harder than it should be. Future government reforms should therefore emphasise delivery as central to government’s purpose. 

Don’t let up on digital transformation. 

Public sector leaders told us they need to resolve the new issues in digital transformation that come with the UK public sector’s increasing digital maturity. They include bringing the quality of data and its architecture in line with the quality of user experience and continuing to resolve legacy issues. 

Seize the potential of procurement. Many public sector leaders told us that the Procurement Act 2023 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has opened up new potential for procurement to boost value for taxpayer’s money and improve partnership working with suppliers large and small. They told us they want to continue the drive towards generating social value through contracts. Seizing that potential will require bold new ways of working, a mature approach to risk and real ambition in the sector’s procurement and commercial functions – plus the leadership to make it happen.