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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

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Localism: it’s now or never

By Ben Lucas

Today we are publishing “Delivering a Localist Future: a route-map for change”.  This is much more a ‘how to’ guide than another report about how centralised our political system has become.  There is a very wide consensus that we need to take power away from the political centre and give it back citizens and localities but the thing is to make it happen.  Unfortunately in British politics it is unwise to underestimate the force of inertia.

Rarely can there have been a more appropriate moment to shift power to local citizens.  We face a very large deficit which we know is going to lead to cuts in public service expenditure.  And our political process could not be held in much lower regard. The challenges we face as a society are ones which require all of us to play our part in resolving. As our interim report ‘Beyond Beveridge- Principles for 2020 Public Services’ argued what we need is a new culture of social productivity.  This is about citizen power and responsibility. It goes beyond an emphasis on rights and entitlements to stress the contribution we will need to make as individuals and communities.

Michael Portillo addressed these themes in his TV programme “Power to the People” BBC2 on Saturday.  As he argued, there is a dangerous and growing disconnect between people and politics and a big part of the problem is over centralisation.  The two longest running governments of the modern era were equally to blame for this – the Thatcher government because of capping and abolition of the Mets and the GLC and the Blair government because of targets and managerialism.  What Portillo’s programme showed is that people are much more likely to trust and engage in politics and public services at a local level. Yes mistakes will be made at local level.  But the Iraq war, Individual Learning Accounts and the NHS IT project illustrate that political and administrative failings can happen at every level of government. 

But the most sobering parts of Portillo’s programme were the interviews with national politicians and journalists – such as David Blunkett and Simon Jenkins – about just how hard it is to switch the centralising gears into reverse.  Whilst chronically low levels of trust and the need to get local consent over difficult spending decisions might sound like powerful cases for localism, that does not mean that a shift in this direction is inevitable. A persuasive argument will be put by the Treasury to new Ministers that, at a time when the imperative will be to reduce the deficit, loosening the purse strings on local government would be foolhardy.  Unfortunately modern British history tends to show that Sir Humphrey tends to win on this one. 

That’s why our report today seeks to make the case for localism in the context of the fiscal deficit.  What we propose is a deal between the big cities and counties and central government at the heart of which are ‘more for less’ single place budgets.  At the Budget the Government will reveal the scale of savings which have been identified through the Total Place Pilots, led by Lord Bichard.. Joint working and collaboration across public services and local government in conurbations like Manchester and Birmingham and Kent and Essex has been highly effective both in promoting better and more integrated responses to areas such as worklessness and youth re-offending.  This process has also spotlighted the extent of duplication at local level, as a result of national agencies and policies cutting across each other in local places.  The danger is, though, that the Government will just bank the savings identified, with no gain to localities and this will simply undermine the good work which has been done through Total Place

The alternative, which we propose, is to negotiate a new deal with localities in which they get a combined budget for their area which includes not just local government funding, but also significant parts of DWP, MOJ and DH spend and new powers over these functions in return for accepting a flat rate percentage less in government funding.  This is a win for localism, but is also a win for the Treasury in its desire to reduce the deficit.

As the Portillo programme argued, this kind of more powerful localism has to have a local face.  So a key part of the deal will be the new accountability arrangements, if a place is going to have new powers and much greater autonomy then local citizens must be clear about who to hold to account.  There are a whole range of options – Mayors, Governors, Sheriffs, Commissioners and there may be others still, that should be for localities to decide. But the principle should be that negotiated autonomy must be based on highly visible local accountability

We don’t suggest that this could happen or would work everywhere in England.  Some localities don’t currently have the capacity, confidence and civic leadership to take on such a role and there is a limit to the capacity of central government to negotiate these agreements. Our report was written with the support of Manchester and Birmingham City Councils, as well as Mouchel.  Manchester is one of two statutory city regions, and it has already taken on new powers – they now run the skills budget for their city region and would like greater control over welfare funding. The council and other public service organisations across Birmingham have formed one of the most effective Total Place Pilots.  Meanwhile Counties like Kent have pioneered combined services and have also called for control over welfare budgets.  These places are ready for devolution, and so they are the natural starting point for a new phase of localism.

Each political era brings with it the opportunity to create a new political reality. After 1997, devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London established a new settlement, but it left the English question unanswered.  The challenge for the next government will be to ensure that people power is extended to citizens in the rest of England.  And the trick will be to combine this with answering our other major challenge – the fiscal deficit.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Guest blog by Sir Andrew Foster Chair of the Commission on 2020 Public Services

By Ashish Prashar

“This evening the Commission on 2020 Public Services – of which I am Chair – launches its Interim Report: ‘Beyond Beveridge: principles for 2020 public services’.  The report is the culmination of a long period of discussion, deliberation and, ultimately, agreement.  We are a diverse commission, representing many political, professional and personal backgrounds.  That we have come together with a common voice is surely significant.

This interim agreement at a moment of crisis for public services is what makes the recommendations of our Commission worth considering.  All 20 Commissioners agree that narrow critiques inevitably find their way to narrow solutions.  So our critique is broad; and our vision for the future is positive and coherent.  Short-term solutions to the debt crisis dominate the press.  So our report looks to the longer term – arguing that short-term decision making must be underpinned by deliberate and strategic principle.

Ultimately, the Commission is about finding a way to develop public services that do better by the people who most rely on them.  We believe in public services as things we all benefit from.  But outcomes are failing some citizens.  The structural basis of our system – designed by William Beveridge in his 1942 report – is no longer adequate for the new world we live in.

Today’s report sets out the Commission’s interim findings.  We lay out a positive vision for public services, and some building blocks to get us there.  Our own next steps involve grounding these principles in the real lives of citizens and those who work in public services.  We will present our final recommendations in summer this year.”

Together with its interim report, the 2020 Public Services Trust is publishing an essay by Professor Howard Glennerster entitled Financing the United Kingdom’s Welfare States and a report prepared by Ipsos MORI called What do people want, need and expect from public services. Professor Glennerster’s essay reveals the extent of the hole in our public finances and advocates partnership approaches between the state and citizens to fund public services. The report by Ipsos MORI uses the most up to date quantitative and qualitative research to explore the public’s priorities and anxieties and suggests how the relationship between citizens and their services might change in the future. These papers have enriched the Commission’s understanding of the context in which it operates – from the perspective of citizens, and with the country’s delicate fiscal situation in mind.

Two major new reports follow these publications.  Online or In-Line: The Future of Information Technology in the Public Services is a report exploring both the opportunities technology can create for public service reform as well as the associated risks, coming out this Friday. On March 23rd, check our website for Delivering a Localist Future: a route-map for change which assesses the practical barriers to achieving the frequently debated, often promised and never delivered localism, and suggests ways to overcome those challenges.


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