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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

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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Monday, March 22, 2010

It may be ‘good to talk’, but talk is cheap. Tell me how.

By Charlotte Alldritt

I’m just back from Gordon Brown’s speech on securing Britain’s digital future – now recognised as one of the key drivers for economic growth (via our creative industries), opening up government (via open data) and delivering personalised public services (increasingly via online access).

Readers of our recent report, ‘Online or Inline’  (web version coming soon) will know that we heartily welcome these policy announcements. But they will also be aware of the challenges such announcements pose in reality. Important questions arise regarding consent, data security, data quality and the role of government in driving all this without stifling market innovation.

There are other big barriers that need to be addressed. The main ones for me are digital inclusion and cultural attitudes in  government and public services.

The Prime Minister talked a lot about digital inclusion and the need for universal broadband access. He said that 100% of the population should be able to take advantage of the benefits of internet (currently nearly a fifth of the population does not have access). Whilst Martha Lane Fox and her team are working to eliminate the current digital divide, Gordon Brown has extended her mandate to ensure that a new digital divide is not created with the advent of next generation broadband (the ‘semantic web’). Universal access will be essential for universal, increasingly personalised (online) public services. The Prime Minister stressed both the moral and economic imperative about this. But, I was left unclear about the role of central government in ensuring access to next gen broadband is not a function of profitability alone. How can government ensure that it reaches the UK’s poorest, elderly, or people in rural areas? How does government get involved without stifling the incentives of the private sector? Is an independent Ofcom enough? There is a fine balance that needs to be struck.

The need for cultural change came up in response to my question on data quality. Our research shows that there is cultural nervousness and even – at times – suspicion/aversion to the release of open data by government and public services. The Prime Minister acknowledged that this needs to change, and the momentum from activists (and to an extent the wider public post MPs expenses) is building. But we need to know more about how this cultural revolution (and it is not an exaggeration to call it so) will happen in practice.  It matters too much to leave it to the forces of ‘inevitability’.

The detail needs to be worked on at a pace if it is to keep up with the rate of development in current and emerging technology. The good news is that politics has woken up to the power of data and the internet for transforming our relationship with government and public services.  But while it may be ‘good to talk’, talk is cheap.  Tell me how.

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Posted by Charlotte Alldritt at 12:42 pm
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Monday, September 7, 2009

Now for a real debate on public services

By Ben Lucas

There are signs that the Government is now groping its way to a more credible position on the future of public spending on public services. For the last year Gordon Brown has tried to maintain the Labour investment versus Tory spending cuts dividing line. But whereas New Labour’s successful political positioning always went with the grain of public opinion, Brown’s line on public finances has failed to convince anyone, few in his own government believe it, let alone the general public.

In practice, the dividing line has been Labour denial versus Tory realism. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Conservatives have been winning the argument. The tragedy for Gordon Brown is that having won international plaudits for his handling of the banking crisis and its aftermath, this success has been overshadowed by his incredible approach to public service spending. There is a powerful economic argument to be made about maintaining public spending in the recession, and the evidence seems to suggest that this has helped mitigate its social impact, particularly on unemployment, but this also depends on there being a credible strategy for reducing debt once the economy returns to growth.

A combination of interviews and briefings over the past week indicate that the Government is changing its position. The strategy seems to be to accept that there will have to be a significant spending reduction, but only once the economy returns to growth and that this will be across all public services including health and overseas aid (both of which have been ringfenced by David Cameron). Within this spending reduction some key economic and social objectives will be identified such as skills, educations and poverty reduction, where spending will be prioritised. In the other areas of spending, the emphasis will be on a return to public service reform, productivity savings, efficiency, choice, competition and more co-production. This could be allied with state asset sales and a more creative and flexible use of community assets, such as libraries, schools, parks and colleges.

But the question for Brown is can he overcome his innate caution and turn this into an effective strategy based on offering a credible alternative to Conservative realism on public service spending?. To do this, it will not be enough to hint at this new approach and hope that an upturn in the economy at the beginning of 2010 will be enough to transform the political debate. The Government will need to make its position very clear in the next few weeks and will then need at least six months to get this across to voters. The best way of doing this would be to go ahead with the Comprehensive Spending Review, which was suspended earlier this year. It’s no good waiting until there is better economic news, because that will probably not be until after the election. So the Government should be bold and push ahead with a CSR this year..

Establishing a more credible position would not only be good for the Government, it would be good for politics. The Conservatives have had it very easy because of Brown’s insistence on denial. But a debate between realists could be a different matter. The Conservatives would have to think hard about the logic of ringfencing health spending, they would have to be clearer about their own numbers and their own tax and spend priorities, including inheritance tax. So far the Conservatives have not had to explain how they would combine the increased spending necessary to tackle “Broken Britain” with 10% cuts in all public services except health and overseas aid. It is in the public interest that both the Government and the Opposition parties should have a credible strategy on the public finances, so that there can be a proper debate about how to achieve sustainable growth, how to reduce the dependency ratio and how to respond to demographic change, behavioural challenges such as obesity, the growth in chronic health conditions and global warming – all within a very tight budget.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Accountable Capitalism and Market Citizenship

By Henry Kippin

There’s an interesting report available today from the IPPR’s Tomorrow’s Capitalism series, exploring the idea of ‘accountable capitalism’. Its authors take the financial crisis as their starting point, and argue that simply blaming the bankers is a red herring. The crisis, they contend, is evidence of systemic failure – a ‘collision of self-interests’, not the fault of one set of agents.

This starting point leads into a discussion of what should replace our failed system. The focus, they argue, should be on five pillars: responsibility; accountability; relevant information; independent adjudication; and vigilant participants. The first pillar is already a central element of the Cameron message, which has pushed the idea of ‘fiscal responsibility’, ‘civic responsibility’, and even responsibility for obesity. Accountability is high on the Labour agenda, with the PM trailing the Cabinet Office’s ‘Working Together’ document as ‘ushering a new world of accountability’. The need for relevant information and effective adjudication has also been thrown into light by recent turmoil at the FSA.

So far so essential – but also relatively uncontroversial.

The authors’ discussion of vigilance is, however, a new avenue – interesting as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does. The essay explores trustee accountability and grass-roots shareowner movements as ways of shaking people out of a ‘hardy culture of passivity’, and using Web 2.0 networking capability to ‘pressurise investors into continuous engagement’. The overarching argument is that insiders (or market participants in this case) are often more effective regulators of market processes than outsiders – with the potential to drive up structures of transparency and accountability.

This is not self-regulation, but a nod towards the idea that we are all stakeholders in the financial crisis – and thus we all share a degree of responsibility for how it should work in the future.

The question is how far we take this idea. What would a citizen focused view of the market look like? Would it imply more than simple transfer and exchange? Should we be more than consumers? Should we be demanding a company balance sheet with our take-away cappuccinos? The IPPR are pushing at an open door with regard to re-evaluating the role of values in markets; but the debate will also have wider implications – sharing elements with emerging debates over public service reform. It is a creative avenue worth following.

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