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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Monday, December 15, 2008

Guest Blog by Matthew Taylor Chief Exec of the RSA

By Ben Lucas

To the 2020 Public Services Trust to give a seminar on public service reform in a messy world. I didn’t have far to go as the 2020 PST is housed at the RSA. In my role as CEO of the RSA I am focused on how we can remove the barriers to social progress, and getting public services right has to be a part of that. But, from my time in Government, I know how hard it is to actually make change happen. At the end of the day we need to find a way in which citizens and communities can be much more self-reliant. The RSA networks team are developing good thinking on the ways in which citizen engagement works.

But back to the 2020 Trust. It’s always a bit worrying having to present my ideas surrounded by such a bunch of experts. To name but a few we had Naomi Eisenstadt, David Albery and Ben Jupp – an impressive round table. But thankfully they were all extremely generous and thoughtful. It was a good discussion.

I’m concerned that too much of the current debate around public service reform is in unhelpful ‘left’ or ‘right’ bunkers. My central idea is that if we take thinking from cultural theory and apply it to how we think about public services we can get a much richer and more productive account of change. In this way we would see four accounts of social interactions namely hierarchical, egalitarian, fatalistic and individualistic. The important insight is that rather than work out the ‘right’ form for any given situation, we need to try and keep each of them in play. Because each of these types of social interaction involve legitimate and different interest groups. In this way we can move away from a zero sum paradigm where for every winner there’s a loser to a much more plural form of engagement. I am indebted to Christopher Hood for this idea.

I also think we expect far too much from public services. Should we really expect schools to be able to solve our problems of inequality when wider society can’t? That seems to me an impossible ask.

The 2020 Trust comes at exactly the right time. With experts, practitioners, people from all parties involved, perhaps it might be possible to create a new settlement for public services. As we go into a tough economic climate we can only sincerely hope so. I’ll do my bit as a Commissioner on the Trust. If you want to read my paper you can find it here.

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Posted by Ben Lucas at 4:00 pm
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The return of zero-sum

By Ben Lucas

Yesterday’s PBR, prompted by the global economic crisis, saw the return of zero-sum to mainstream political economy in the UK. For more than a decade New Labour has defied the idea that public policy necessarily has to involve choices which create winners and losers. This has been best exemplified by its use of the conjunction “and” as in “social justice and economy efficiency”, or “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. The Cameron Conservatives also went along with this consensus, hence a policy based on “sharing the proceeds of economic growth” which allowed both tax cuts and high public service spending.

But what is now clear is that we are entering an era of hard, and probably increasingly clear choices, which will create winners and losers. The Government, in order to reassure financial markets, was explicit yesterday that while there will be short term winners from the economic stimulus package there will be long term losers, particularly high earners. Moreover, whilst in the short term some £3bn of capital projects will be brought forward to boost the economy, in the medium term public spending will be the loser as an even tighter straight jacket is put on public service spending from 2011 onwards.

But where the main political parties are still not facing up to the new reality is what this will mean for public services in the medium to long term. The general message is that the ‘party’s over’ for public services. But the demand pressures on public services will grow and grow. In the very short term this will be seen with much higher benefit bills, welfare spending was 35% of all public spending at the height of the recession in the 1980s, it was 25% of all public spending in the 1990s recession, but at present only stands at 15% of public spending. This is bound to rise as a result of unemployment.

But the long term pressures will be even more stark. The demographic timebomb is far more potentially explosive than the future tax plans unveiled in the PBR. We will have to find a way of paying for an increasingly elderly society, which will see a 50% increase in the number of people over the age of 85 by 2020. At the same time society will have to confront a number of behavioural challenges, such as obesity and re-offending, which current public services are ill equipped to deal with. On top of which will be the cost of mitigating climate change and managing risk, including systemic market failure.

To suggest that the only response to these new pressures is some variation on a cost-reduction exercise is to fail to grasp the extent of the challenge which public services will face in the future. Here too we are probably going to have to make some hard choices, about what is really important for society and what is less important. About what the state should be responsible for and what it shouldn’t, about how services should be paid for, how they should be delivered and how rights, responsibilities and risks should be allocated between the individual, society and the state. These are the big issues which the PBR failed to touch on. They will be the focus of our shortly to be launched Commission on 2020 Public Services.

Monday, November 10, 2008


By Ben Lucas

Welcome to the new 2020 Public Services Trust blog. This is just the start of our vision of a Commission 2.0. We aim to post regular entries and we hope you can join us in lively debates on the future of public services. The posts will range from speakers at our seminar series and researchers working on commissioned reports for the Trust, through to commentary on current public service policy issues.

We are entering a new era – public services in a cold economic climate. Whilst the inevitability of recession has been apparent for several months, it is only now that the political parties are even beginning to think through the implications for public services. This is partly because political parties are like oil tankers, it takes a long time to turn them around, and partly because a mindset created by 16 continuous years of growth takes some time to come to terms with a new economic reality.

As recently as the party conferences we were treated to the very odd spectacle of completely disconnected narratives from Labour, Liberal Democrats and Tories. Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling, Vince Cable, David Cameron and George Osborne all talked about the new economic challenges, with the latter dubbing this “the politics of austerity”. Meanwhile, Ministers and spokespersons for spending departments gave speeches and unveiled policies, sometimes involving new spending commitments, which mostly seemed detached from the new economic reality.

Nevertheless, the new economic climate looks like changing everything. Jobs are back at the top of the political agenda. The state is back too, both in the US and the UK, with the effective nationalisation of the financial sector and everyone looking to government action to stimulate the economy. Keynesian counter cyclical investment in the form both of fiscal stimulus and infrastructure type public works package is once again the orthodoxy. Meanwhile there are chilling rumours about the size of the fiscal gap and the scale of public service cuts which may have to be introduced either in 2009/10 or the year after that, on top of the immediate savings which departments are going to have to make.

Through both our seminar programme and our shortly to be launched Commission on 2020 Public Services, we will be looking at the medium to long term effect on public services of economic downturn. In the short to medium term the focus will be on hard spending choices, with zero sum consequences. But in the longer term the questions which our Commission will seek to answer are what will we need public services for in the future, and what should be the balance and distribution of risk and responsibility between the state, society and the individual. This will involve exploring in some depth the features of a post-bureaucratic or an empowering state in relation to public services and how these would be balanced against the strategic and planning role which the state will need to play both on infrastructure and, for the foreseeable future, in financial markets. The long term issues, which economic downturn puts into even sharper focus, are the demographic, economic, environmental, fairness and behavioural challenges with which our current public service settlement, based as it is on the 64 year old Beveridge report, is ill equipped to cope.

Our first guest blog, from Hilary Cottam, founding partner of Participle takes up this theme by proposing a new model, Beveridge 4. Her starting point for this is the innovative work in which Participle has been involved with Southwark Council in seeking to recreate services for the elderly. This is particularly fitting, as it has long been held that the rising cost of care for the elderly, in a society in which the number of those aged over 85 will increase 50% by 2020 to 1.9 million, could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of the welfare state.

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Posted by Ben Lucas at 5:15 pm

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