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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The disconnect between voters and politicians on public services…

By Ben Lucas

Today we are releasing headline findings from detailed focus group research which we commissioned Ipsos-MORI to carry out into attitudes to public service reform.  These are based on 13 discussion groups with a range of ethnicities and socio economic groups weighted towards regular service users in 5 English Towns and Cities: Ashford, Kent; Stockport; Oxford; Birmingham; and London.  The full report will be published in early May.

Public service reform is the flip side of the deficit and rising demand pressures.  On all these issues there is a reality gap, which politicians of all parties haven’t dared to address.  Those hoping that the election campaign would close this gap by introducing specific and realistic plans for cutting the deficit and for paying for and running public services have so far been disappointed.  So it’s unsurprising that our research reveals widespread scepticism about generalised and vague ideas for public service reform.

This matters because future demand pressures, particularly associated with the costs of an ageing society, could add 6% to the proportion of GDP which would have to be spent on public services and that’s before taking into account the £40bn black hole in public finances which will have to be filled over the next 4 years.  Public services will have to change in response to these pressures.  But politicians have denied the public the debate they deserve on this.

Because of the banking collapse and the expenses scandal, voters and politicians are caught in a cycle of fear and loathing.  But it needn’t be this way. It’s not that voters won’t support reform. Rather, reform requires clear leadership which engages the public in a proper discussion about the pros and cons of change.  Our research suggests the route it could take.  It explores the types of ideas which are most likely to be attractive and the conditions that the public want to see satisified. 

For changes to be popular with voters they need the following attributes:

  • Security and fairness – the main finding from our research is how deeply attached voters are to the values of security and fairness which they see as underpinning public services.  Politicians would undermine these at their peril. Any reform to public services will have to maintain their essential characteristics – providing a safety net and support, with processes and outcomes which are seen to be fair.
  • Local control – people are receptive to changes which would increase local control over public services.  This links with voters’ desire to be able to see and experience first hand changes in services so that they can properly evaluate these. The ideas discussed here here included:  greater local control over spending, neighbourhood budgets, local public service co-ops, and more local elected accountability.  However, voters want the reassurance of knowing that there are limits to localism, within a national framework of standards so that, as we have seen in Doncaster, central government can step in if necessary to protect citizen’s national rights.
  • Citizen control and voice – Individual budgets are a popular idea, especially where they give individuals more control over the money which is spent on them, eg for caring or for children with special education needs.  But there are fairness concerns, with people worrying that the confident middle classes might benefit, while those from lower social economic groups or marginalised groups might struggle to make this work for them
  • Citizen advisers to help navigate through the system – Another idea which was very warmly received was citizen advisers to help people get the best out of public services and to overcome the fairness problems which people worried about with choice and individual budgets.  Sometimes also called choice advisers, these advisers would be a single point within the system where citizens could get they help they need to get the best out of public services.  Advice would range from service rights to which citizens are entitled through to how to make the most effective choices with individual budgets.

For voters to be persuaded to back change the following approaches need to be taken:

  • Keep it practical and specific – Voters might initially be attracted to big ideas but they soon start to question their practicality.  What they are interested in is not so much vague principles but more practical, concrete examples of how change might work.  They want to see the evidence of how a particular idea has worked and what the pros and cons have been. 
  • Gradual, small scale and incremental – People want change which is organic, which goes with the grain and grows out of existing structures rather than root and branch change. That means identifying the changes which are already working and looking at what can be learnt from these.  And it means building from the bottom up with small scale changes which can be spread rather than grandiose new initiatives.
  • Start with newer, non-core services – People are more likely to support new ways of doing things for either new services or what they see as, non-core services.   So mutuals, volunteering and co-payment will work best if they start with services such as parks and leisure services.  Whilst the focus groups did not explore how public services might respond to some of the new behavioural challenges such as carbon reduction, and obesity, it would be reasonable to conclude that these may also be areas which are ripe for more innovation.

The public’s strong dislike of user charging is striking.  It appears that they see it through the same lens as tax rises and cuts; their question is ‘Why should we have to suffer any of this pain, when it was the bankers and politicians which created the problem?’

Interestingly, the idea of social insurance and partnership funding between the individual and the state for services such as long term care has very little resonance. When pushed participants saw some positives and were also interested in suggesting other elements which could be taken into account, such as social credits which reflected non-financial contribution. But what this shows is that the need to fund some long term challenges in new ways is not yet on the radar for most people – indicating yet again how politicians have failed to engage the public in a debate about the future of public services.

For the 2020 Public Services Commission, the significance of these findings lies in what they show about the need to develop concrete examples of change, to build on where successful innovation is already taking place and the need to have a model of transformation which is based on consent.  These findings will feed into the next stage of our work in which we will be moving from the general to the particular, by seeing how the principles we set out in our interim report could be applied to welfare reform, education, health and public safety.

You can read a summary of the findings here

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Three colours orange – but what about the issues?

By Ben Lucas

In the parallel universe of British politics everyone has now become a Cleggon – basking in the orange afterglow of the Leader’s debate.  Change has become the central question – the choice being about who can manage this best and who personifies it the most.

But the election has not yet resolved itself into a clear argument about alternative strategies for managing the big issues – the economy, the deficit and the future of our public services. Read the manifestos in detail, as I suspect few have done, and what emerges are large areas of agreement between the three main parties, especially about public services and how they need to change.  But each party puts a different gloss on this. 

For Labour the central issue is about the scale of future risk – economic, social, demographic and political.  The message is that only Labour has the experience and fair values to guide Britain through these difficult times.  From here it is only a short step to Gordon Brown’s dividing lines on what public service budgets Labour would protect.

The Conservatives focus not so much on future risk but the state we are in.  Their argument is that our public finances, economy and society are broken and that a fundamentally new approach to government is needed.  They set out their stall for the Big Society, in which families, communities, and the state will need to work together to build a stronger society – exemplified in their plans for national community service for 16 year olds.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have presented themselves both as the change agents and the people who tell it as it is.  For them the elephant in the room is the deficit and they seek to make a virtue out of plain speaking on this – saying that efficiency savings will never be sufficient to tackle the deficit.  They identify the need for hard choices about which spending to cut and offer, as examples of this, Trident and the Child Trust Fund.

Of course each party has much more detailed proposals on public service reform.  Labour has proposed strengthening citizens rights to public services to create a bottom up entitlement driver for improvement, with new patient and citizen guarantees. The issue of long term care and Labour’s proposal to create a new National Care Service echo Brown’s message about future risk.  And Labour seeks to be our mutual friend with proposals for public service co-ops in housing, sure start and even primary care trusts.

The Conservatives have prioritised welfare reform, based on tougher conditionality and extending payment by results for welfare service providers.  They have also promoted their model for parent led schools and for public service employee mutuals.  And they have courted some controversy by sticking to their guns in advocating elected police commissioners. On health their policy has been ‘softly, softly’, as they continue with their strategy of seeking to neutralise what has been a traditional Labour positive.   

The Liberal Democrats make fairness and decentralisation their overarching themes for public services.  They promote an explicitly redistributive funding formula which targets funding at the poorest people, so that the money follows the poorest patients and pupils – education and health premiums.  They advocate strengthened local say through elected local health boards and police authorities and neighbourhood justice panels.  And, in addition to their well publicised plans to simplify the tax system, they also propose greater transparency and control over by giving people greater flexibility in accessing part of their pension before retirement.  What the Liberal Democrats do not do is set out a framework for public service reform.

But so far none of the three main parties has really managed to lodge with the public a clear sense of what their vision adds up to for public services.   The Big Society is in some ways the most audacious idea, but it has not yet resonated as it might because, apart from volunteering, it it’s not yet clear where the beef is.  Meanwhile Labour’s focus on future risk has had some effect, but at the same time seems clunky. And the Lib Dems have scored on the deficit yet their prescription is less comprehensive.

Each party appears to have more of a stance than a strategy.  Take localism.  All are agreed that significant decentralisation is needed. The policies are plentiful from elected mayors, to localised planning and housing. What is lacking is a coherent theory.  A genuine shift in power from the centre to localities would have to involve big change in Whitehall and Westminster – a re-imagined, smaller and more strategic centre whose role would be to enable and empower innovation and delivery at local level.  That could be a recipe for achieving big savings as Total Place identified. The simple test for real devolution is to follow the money – if control over funding and revenue stays at the centre then so will power..

So the challenge for the main parties as we enter the second half of the election campaign will be to crystallise their respective positions into harder propositions, which offer voters some real choices for the future.  This isn’t just necessary for winning it is critical for governing. Whoever wins the next election, and whatever formation emerges after May 6th., their job in tackling economic stagnation, rising demand pressures and growing debt levels will be made that much harder if they haven’t established a mandate for the tough decisions which will be necessary.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Return of the Mac

By Ashish Prashar

Blair’s Back! Former Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped out of the political shadows today by making a speech in his former constituency of Sedgefield.

He praised Gordon Brown’s experience, judgement and boldness.  He also said he was optimistic about Britain’s future and that “the financial crisis does not diminish this optimism.” Mr Blair then went on to attack the Conservatives accusing them of “confusion” over their own policies.

He concluded that “this country needs strong leadership. I want a future fair for all. Only a fourth term Labour government can deliver it.”

Mr Blair used his speech to rally support for Labour ahead of the start of the election campaign, and is expected to make several appearances during the campaign.

Following the speech Labour’s election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander hit the airwaves, suggesting “Mr Blair’s presence will strengthen the party’s fortunes.” Conservative Shadow Treasury Minister Greg Hands quipped “it’s nice to see Tony Blair make a speech he hasn’t been paid for.”

It remains to be seen what impact Mr Blair might have on voters, but what is certain is that his return to UK party politics will spark controversy.  Let’s hope that ignites wider public interest in the political process. Either way; it’s definitely the return of the Mac.

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Posted by Ashish Prashar at 3:17 pm
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