Open Public Services - put the User and Citizen at the heart of Reform

Public services matter. They are too important to be victim to poorly thought-through political whims. They are too important to be left unreformed. And too important to be underfunded.

After months of delay and one suspects many intellectual and political somersaults at the heart of Government, the Open Public Services White Paper has been published. More reform is necessary and urgent. What is required is the right reform with some experimentation.

With this White Paper, the Government had the chance to establish itself once and for all as the champion of service users - the citizens, communities and businesses that rely on effective, responsive and affordable public services. It has not succeeded. Whilst it proposes some extensions to user rights, it is regrettable that the overall thrust of the White Paper is seemingly more concerned with who provides than what is provided, accountability and user choice.

If any reform programme is to work, the citizen and customer need to be right at its heart - in deed as well as words. Every reform should have a public value test - does this benefit users and communities and enable them to take control; offer sustainable value for money; contribute to community wellbeing; enable transparent accountability; and does it enable the state to better manage risk?

The commitment to more choice, personalisation, extending personal budgets, and community and neighbourhood control of budgets and the commissioning of services are to be welcomed. This will require a greater diversity of supply but it will require more than that and the public sector should be able to be a supplier.

People must have the money to buy services which are of high quality, reliable and sustainable. They need access to credible information to make real choices. Some will require advocacy support. To that end the Government should support user co-operatives as much as supplier co-operatives - but where are they in the White Paper. These could sit alongside the proposed neighbourhood commissioning.

In addition the Government could promote user rights to challenge supply and force commissioners to review services; renegotiate and where necessary terminate contracts with the private and third sectors. Where contracts are awarded a substantial element of the payment should be based on user satisfaction; and with greater use determination of the services they receive.

There is undoubtedly a strong argument for introducing challenge and alternative provision to the monopolistic or near monopolistic supply of services in the public. But surely the emphasis should be on encouraging genuine alternatives that meet a wider public value test and where such an approach does not risk replacing one monopoly with another. There should be no presumption in favour of any one sector.

However in this White Paper, the Coalition has conflated greater competition and an enhanced role for the private sector with reform. Unfortunately, this is precisely where it went wrong on the NHS. There is unquestionably a role for the private sector as service providers - but to secure the benefits of involving them requires excellent public sector commissioning; selection of suppliers based on values and ethos and not simply on price or technical solutions; and real risk sharing and transfer based on partnership. Sadly, the White Paper falls short on these essential factors.

Neither should the focus should solely be on public or private sectors. The third, community, voluntary and social enterprise sectors have a major role to play in their own right, and Government has to ensure that the right conditions pertain to enable the third sector to grow to its capacity and fund its capital requirements.

Historically, there has always been a mixture of provision by the public sector, charities, the private sector and social enterprises. And over time, that balance will change still further - there will always be ebbs and flows between the sectors.

However, the lack of a consistent and rigorously evidence-based case for a greater role for the private sector in public service delivery is hugely unhelpful and undermines the credibility of reforms based on such an approach. Experience of using the private sector has been mixed. Arguments used to support a greater role for the private sector have been numerous: to drive down price through competition; to tackle under-performance; to create additional capacity; to attract capital investment; to innovate; and to offer service users choice of supplier and service. The trouble is that much of the evidence of the effectiveness of these applications tends to be anecdotal rather than evidence-based. What is needed now are very different cross-sector partnerships with greater risk transfer and a focus on outcomes for citizens and driving providers to contribute to wider public policy goals.

The Government is encouraging public sector staff to set up "employee co-operatives" to run their services. This is commendable and where staff wish to take the lead there could be exciting opportunities. Indeed trade unions may wish to consider how they could sponsor such enterprises. However, service users and not just staff and management must be involved in the decision-making - as they should in all commissioning and procurement. These co-operatives have to be adequately resourced with capital and revenue and have the ability to trade and build a business or they will fail. This promotion of mutual and co-operatives must not turn out to be a cynical move to transfer unreasonable risks on to staff, for if it is it will fail, users and staff will be the losers and the Government will have literally bankrupt policy on its hands. No one wants this. And to level the playing field, this right to create mutuals and co-operatives could and should be extended to employees delivering services which are currently contracted to private sector providers as well.

Markets and user choice are fundamental to reform and can play a critical role in the modern public service environment - but the facts is that unrestrained 'free markets' are not appropriate for many public services. Accordingly, these markets have to be regulated in a manner proportionate to the potential operational, financial and commercial risks and in order to secure wider policy goals - for example collaboration between services, equity of access or work force standards. We need to avoid a race to find who can be the employer with the worst terms and conditions or deliver the cheapest and nastiest service- this is hardly an edifying outcome.

As it promotes more competition from the third and private sectors, the Government needs to be more explicit about the public sector's record (as the prime Minister was at the launch of the White Paper) and its ability to match and even exceed the reforming zeal and performance of others. In turn the public sector, its managers and staff have to step up to the plate and demonstrate a willingness and ability to reform.

Whatever the White Paper's words, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Government's major reason for seeking change is its drive to reduce the public deficit by cutting expenditure on a range of public services. Trouble lies ahead if the principal driver for change is the desire to cut spending accompanied by a preference for market solutions. Opposition will mount.

The Open Services White Paper contains some interesting and radical ideas. The Government must be clearer on its vision and values for our public services, and its commitment to them. If not ministers will be find themselves judged not by their reform programme but by the cuts that their economic and fiscal policy is inflicting on valued and vital services.

Public services matter. They are too important to be victim to poorly thought-through political whims. They are too important to be left unreformed. And too important to be underfunded.


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