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Have We Had Enough Of Public Service "Experts"?

31/07/2017 13:16

During the EU Referendum campaign, Michael Gove famously claimed that Britons "have had had enough of experts". The quote is frequently taken out of its full context but the message was (and still is) very clear - people feel things are being done to them not with them. This feeling was already slowly building but the whole Brexit referendum process and the subsequent inconclusive election have made people feel like they have lost control of their own lives.

A response to this challenge comes from the RSA's Ian Burbidge who says that the "consolidation of power in the hands of public service experts and institutions reinforces disempowerment and a reduce sense of personal agency". Burbidge's starting position is that our current system of government prioritisation and decision making is incapable of effectively responding to this new dynamic. I agree with him. People are not only aware that they have lost agency but are prepared to go against the expressed wishes of their elected leaders to make the point.

There has long been a serious disconnect between public service decision making and what people actually need. My view is that this starts with the gap between public service bosses (who make prioritisation and resourcing decisions) and frontline staff (who are much better placed to know what is actually needed). This old fashioned command and control management is encapsulated by the concept of New Public Management, a tool which assumes a linear relationship between inputs, outputs and outcomes. This in turn reinforces public service silos so that all activity can be monitored and measured. As Burbidge rightly notes, this disables any urge to think creatively or innovatively as the system simply does not reward it - and indeed often punishes it. New Public Management takes us down a road where it is better to avoid mistakes than to push the boundaries of what is possible (and accept a degree of failure). No game changing moment was ever arrived at through this mind-set.

Burbidge puts forward a new approach which he summarises as "think like system and act like an entrepreneur". The two core imperatives of this are 1) we must recognise the complexity of the bigger picture and how public service system is linked up and 2) we must be prepared to develop flexible and iterative responses to this. In other words - be prepared to experiment. The world around us is messy. Success in tackling a public service issue can't come from simply following the dictates of those in authority. Success requires engaging with the power of individuals and groups and what motivates them. This opens up an untidy environment which makes a lot of people uncomfortable - but it is the real world!

I have previously written about experimenting in public services and specifically on whether or not the new devolution deals in places like Greater Manchester and the West Midlands boldly go where central government hasn't. My main argument was that it would be much better if we could adjust the culture in government (central and local) to encourage well-intentioned and insulated experimentation.

Accepting this is not easy, especially in the public services environment. Burbidge argues that we need a new equilibrium between people, groups and the hierarchy. I interpret this as each of these key actors being ready to step out of their comfort zone and accept that there is no such things as a perfect plan - so we shouldn't spend so long trying to achieve one. Being entrepreneurial is about seizing opportunities which may only be available for a fleeting moment -spend too long planning and you will miss it.

We already have some great examples of this type of entrepreneurial behaviour in public services. However, many of the best examples are of public sector teams who have taken a step (sometimes a big step) away from the public sector environment and the dominance of New Public Management thinking.

Adult social care provider PossAbilities "spun out" of Rochdale Council in 2014 into a staff-owned mutual which continues to provide services commissioned by the public sector. Since then, they have experienced impressive success and growth having used their new found freedom to allow staff to experiment and use their professional judgement. They have doubled in size having bid for and won a large contract in a neighbouring council. Has quality slipped? Not a bit of it! In December 2015, the CQC rated PossAbilities as 'Outstanding', putting it in the top 1% of providers nationally.

In April 2014, the London Boroughs of Richmond and Kingston took the radical step of creating a new jointly owned social enterprise, Achieving for Children, to deliver children's services across both authorities. Since then they have reduced unnecessary bureaucracy and staff moral has increased leading to them being awarded the 2016 Employer of the Year award at the Social Worker of the Year Awards. And what about the impact on service quality? Achieving for Children has taken the Kingston service from an Ofsted rating of "inadequate" in 2012 and 2013 to "Good" in 2015 - an almost unheard of double jump in performance levels.

There are many excellent examples of in-house public sector services who have leaders prepared to push the boundaries - but for the most part, the New Public Management mind-set still has a firm grip.

So in answer to the question posed in the title "Have we had enough of public sector experts?" I don't think we have - but we have been looking to the wrong experts. Experts who are too far removed from the public and reality. We need to pay more attention to the experts who are actually managing and delivering front line services - and we need to give them the space and freedom to be entrepreneurs. The fantastic teams at PossAbilities and Achieving for Children have shown us it can be done and can deliver great results for service users.

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