The future shape of public services in Scotland

Very interesting lecture at the National Library on Thursday evening (5th).  Ben Lucas was the principal speaker.  He was billed as a ‘public policy and communications entrepreneur’ – a job title that would have you running the opposite direction.  However the talk was very stimulating.  He is involved through the RSA , and in many other ways, in trying to create a public debate about the future of public services.

He outlined very succinctly why the present model is heading for the buffers:

  • demographic pressures (particularly the pressures on care and health of an ageing population);
  • financial pressures – seen now in budget reductions (the worst is yet to come if the coalition’s plans are put into place), but also there is convincing evidence that money will not fix the problems – the heavy investment in the period 2001-2008, while producing real benefits in health and education, was really a matter of running to keep standing still;
  • the consequent increase in poverty and job insecurity;
  • limited options for growth in the UK economy;
  • increasing demand (maintaining current levels of public service will require 6% more of UK GDP to be spent on public services by 2020 – at a time when the tax take is reducing);
  • a decline in public trust in public institutions (politicians, the banks…);
  • a political vacuum – all the major parties adopt largely reactive positions, based around protecting, reforming, cutting the existing services.  Attempts to develop a new set of concepts for grappling with the issues (e.g. Cameron’s ‘Big Society’) are fragmentary and underdeveloped.   No party is willing to be ‘honest’ with the public about the fact that we cannot maintain the current ‘bungling through’ approach.

After this bit of ‘doom and gloom’, he turned to his reasons to be cheerful:

  • technology offers and will offer new ways to configure our relationships and tasks;
  • there is lots of evidence of grassroots attempts to change how public services operate at ground level – he cited the English city commissions (Leeds for example), the Christie Commission in Scotland and Wales Public Services 2025 as examples;
  • he challenged the people in the room to be the active citizens who will contribute to changing the terms of the debate, so that we can make address the issues.

His principal task, however, was, to reconfigure the way we think about public service.  He outlined some key principles for future public service:

  • prevention not reaction;
  • integration at the local level
  • local civic engagement and governance
  • services acting as a catalyst for community enterprise
  • increased efficiency
  • ‘channel shifts’ (completely new methods of delivery) where digital technology makes this possible.

What was needed was a way of pulling these together conceptually.  Here he echoed in this more general sphere my own thoughts about education.  For 20-30 years, the dominant conceptual model of public services has been that of the services as ‘consumer goods’, consumed by individuals exercising choices in a ‘market’ environment where competition develops excellence.  However most public services, unlike consumer products, are joint enterprises, which realise a social as well as an individual value.  These are created by the citizen and service working together.  This understanding certainly works much better in education and in health, where the behaviours and values of the citizens are a dominant factor in the quality of the outcomes.   We need this comprehensive conceptual map to avoid fragmentation of the debate and address the foundations of the problems facing us.   At the heart of the map he outlined was ‘social productivity’: the production of ‘social value’ – in his view this would be about people fulfilling their potential / aspirations.   This is not about ‘making services better’ but about ‘helping communities to be more capable’ (this is  a quotation which he acknowledged from a talk by Colin Mair, Chief Executive of the Scottish Improvement Service (did you know we had one??).

So far so good, but here we began to part company, for the concept of community is itself contentious and what are these communities to be more capable of?  In our plural invidualising world, we participate in fragments of community – geographical, virtual, interest based, work based, entertainment based, fashion and identity based. values based …  These different communities aim at different, sometimes competing goals.  Political process is the broker.   Because a centralised state (such as England) is incapable of the kinds of civic engagement necessary to reconfigure public services as joint projects of professionals and citizens working together, it does not necessarily follow that local government models will do better.  Some of the worst examples of democratic deficit I have witnessed have been in local government.

Nonetheless a very interesting and stimulating talk.

Ben was followed up by David Martin, speaking to the Scottish agenda.  Rhetorically and intellectually, his was a slack performance (how many times did he state that he wanted  to ‘drive change’), lacking the spark or insight of the previous speaker.   He was parochial, reactive, repetitive and self important in equal measure.  I was very disappointed in the quality of what he had to say, but even more disappointed that this is the Director of the Scottish Centre for Public Policy- surely we can have a better level of debate in a Scotland where all debate about the balance between local govt/Scottish govt has been kicked into toiuch until at least 2016 because of an obsession with Independence.. when we are all, in fact, interdependent.

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