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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

We mourn the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy, a truly great public servant…

By Ashish Prashar

The death of Senator Edward Kennedy after a long battle with malignant brain cancer will deprive the US Senate of one of its finest and longest serving members. Many people in the UK only know about Senator Kennedy because they knew he was a member of the Kennedy Clan, but today we mourn the passing of a truly great public servant who despite his ill health remained one of the most influential figures in the party and continued to dedicate himself to the quest for universal health care – and through his continued commitment to defend the poor and politically disadvantaged he helped to enact measures to protect civil and labour rights, expand healthcare, upgrade schools,  and made a difference in creating a better society in America.

The BBC’s Richard Lister in Washington says Senator Kennedy, known affectionately as Teddy, will be remembered as one of the most effective and popular legislators in American history – I would go one step further and say that when the history of the Senate is written he will be remembered as one of the greatest of senators of all time.

The BBC has done a nice video summary of the life of Senator Kennedy here.

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Posted by Ashish Prashar at 9:45 am
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I never predict anything, and I never will….

By Henry Kippin

The BBC reported this morning that economists are not the only people having trouble forecasting the future.  Apparently we can forget the ‘barbecue summer’ we were promised earlier in the year, and look forward to ‘unsettled weather’ through much of August.  According to this morning’s report, “this news will raise questions about the Met Office’s ability to make reliable seasonal forecasts.”

Of course, the Met Office have got it wrong before (most notably before the 1987 hurricane), but lets give them a break this time.  The reason why so many of us are holidaying at home this year is because cash is tight – not because we were all convinced that the UK will resemble the Costa del Sol during the next 4 weeks. 

My tenuous link to a wider political issue is about the rights and wrongs of prediction.  We are ourselves engaged in a degree of forward thinking about the challenges and opportunities that will shape public services ten years from now.  Some things we are fairly sure about – that we will be a more diverse, sophisticated and demanding citizenry, for example.  But in scoping the fiscal landscape, or reflecting on how new technology might reshape public service delivery, we can be far less certain. 

There is little we can do about this.  We can (and we do) ask the experts – but the experts largely failed to predict the global financial crisis, and the experts didn’t see the rain coming this summer.  So perhaps the answer is to go back to the source. 

We want public services and a political system that reflects the needs of our citizens, and that enables them to become resilient, capable, productive and social people (amongst other things).  So we need to think about how to service these aims, but arguably more important are the means through which citizens themselves can hold their public services and their political representatives to account.  Less prescription; more responsiveness, consultation and accountability. 

Through our wet and windy August I will be reflecting on these aims, and the wise words of Gazza – “I never predict anything, and I never will do.”



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Posted by Henry Kippin at 10:47 am
Monday, July 20, 2009

North and South

By Henry Kippin

I had a great discussion with a colleague last week on one particular aspect of the multi-layered problem of accountability in political life, and across public services. We had just attended a seminar led by John Dunford, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, and one attendee had made a point about the value of school boards.

Post-seminar, we discussed the value of representation versus expertise – of the need for effective policy scrutiny, versus the need for an accountable body properly reflecting the diversity of values, background and opinion being represented. Ideally, we would have both. But this is not always the case.

This got me thinking about the diversity (or otherwise) of the world that policy wonks (sorry), civil servants etc inhabit. It isn’t particularly diverse, and, anecdotally at least, is very Oxbridge and home-counties centric. But is this a problem? In some ways, I think yes. Perspective, values, expectations and experiences – we benefit from diversity in all of these things. On the other hand, good ideas are good ideas…and we can’t really admonish thinktanks, government departments or quango boards for recruiting what they see as the best and most qualified candidates.

The difficulty of arriving at a solution is explored today in a nice article by Catherine Bennett, which would be better read than summarised here. But at its root, the issue is about social mobility. As Alan Milburn said this week, the route into university (and the opportunities this opens up) are key. According to the BBC today,

“Recruiting more students from a wider range of social backgrounds into university has been seen as a key to social mobility. But the report suggests that much more needs to be done – with fears that the university system can reinforce disadvantage rather than reduce it. It will call for leading universities to take into account the social background of pupils – particularly when pupils from low-achieving schools are competing against independent school pupils with a tradition of very high grades.”

The report will be eagerly awaited – especially by those who heard Mr Milburn talk about its emerging findings at a recent 2020 seminar. This might be an initiative born in downing street, but with a message that will hopefully ripple across the political spectrum.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 7:19 pm
Thursday, April 9, 2009

Scandalous social care

By Charlotte Alldritt

Tonight, BBC’s Panorama broadcasts a scathing attack on the UK’s social care services for elderly people. The programme depicts a picture of chaos and neglect, as staff are overworked and some haven’t even received any formal training. Research for the BBC found that private companies are delivering care for as low as £12 an hour, £10 less than what it costs local councils. This is an example of public services going to the lowest cost bidder with serious implications for quality.

Yet contracting out of public services is not necessarily a recipe for disaster. And its a good job, given that competition, diversity of providers and choice are the building blocks of a cross-party consensus on public service delivery. This move away from public sector monopoly was designed to ramp up quality and enable ‘citizen-consumers’ to receive personalised care, cost-effective for the taxpayer. Scandalous examples of where this has failed are unforgivable, but do not necessarily call into question the model of contestability and competition in public services itself. Rather, it beckons serious concerns over the quality of monitoring and inspection. It also causes us to ask about the role of central targets, minimum standards, and the benefits of a principle (as opposed to risk-) based regulation system.

The design and reform of public services over the last few decades has seen moves backwards and forwards on policy instruments and the appropriate role of government (both central and local). What remains critical, however, is the need for quality to be at the heart of the system and the needs of the citizen to be paramount. Both parties have acknowledged this in their rhetoric. The NHS Darzi Review has seemingly embraced it in practice. Unfortunately, even then difficult questions remain, not least – as Ben Lucas reminds us (see Is fairness back in fashion? 8 April 2009) – in the face of a serious funding crisis.

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Posted by Charlotte Alldritt at 2:08 pm

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