Last week I was invited to give evidence to the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) for its enquiry on citizens and public services. This is an important enquiry and has the opportunity to address some fundamental questions about the nature of our public services, and the Government's 'reform' and public expenditure programmes.
In a democracy and a modern state, all public services should be both accountable to citizens and address their needs and aspirations. The citizen is more than a consumer of public services. She or he has several relationships with public services including as a member of society, as a tax payer, as a service user and as an elector.
Citizen involvement in public services can take many forms too. Citizens can (and I would argue, should) be involved in public policy development and budget decisions; strategic commissioning (and if services are procured from businesses, charities or social enterprises - in all stages of the procurement process); service design, monitoring and review; and increasingly in the co-production of services. This involvement can be based on a community or on individuals.
In addition, since public money is being used to fund and/or regulate public services in order to secure public benefit, there has to be public accountability.
All these relationships between citizens and public services require transparency and accessible information being readily available to service users, tax payers and all citizens.
Accessible jargon free language and honesty from politicians and public service senior executives is essential. They must share the plight of their organisations and the hard choices confronting them. It is wrong to conflate competition and the use of markets with public service reform. It is also wrong to obfuscate and deliberately talk about 'demand management' when actually what is meant is cuts or rationing. Or to assume that the voluntary sector can and will step in if the public sector withdraws funding if this has not be agreed in advance. There are too many examples of hiding and timidity. The public expects and is entitled to honesty.
As the Government presses ahead with market focused public services policies, it is vital that citizens are fully informed as markets only work effectively on that basis. It is also vital that the greater use of business, charity and social sector providers does not lead to more opaqueness and lack of transparency. There is a real risk that this is already happening with too many public sector clients and their contracted providers seeking to hide their performance and much more behind the 'modesty screen' of 'commercial confidentiality'. This is wrong and has to be challenged.
However, whether public services are delivered by the public sector itself or by contractors from whatever sector, it is important there are some standard rules and expectations about disclosure and transparency. As a minimum these should, in my view, include:
• the application of the Freedom of Information Act to all providers of public services as the PASC itself has already proposed
• the use of language that is non-jargonistic and accessible, and the presentation of information in ways that the public can readily understand
• a full disclosure and active consultative and involvement process for all major policy, budget, commissioning and procurement processes, including in the case of the latter an opportunity for consultation and public debate on the proposed business case prior to commencing any procurement exercise
• an openness about what is possible and what is not; what funding is available; what outcomes are being sought; and the 'trade-offs' that are inevitable between expenditure and quality and volume
• full disclosure of performance including financial and operational performance, social, environmental and economic impact, user and wider public satisfaction levels and in the case of outsourced services money flows
• some standardisation and national co-ordination of such data to ensure comparability and public confidence
• political scrutiny of all public service commissioning and provider bodies with user and citizen involvement
Of course it will be essential to avoid over bureaucratic processes and ones that would discriminate against the voluntary, social enterprise and SME sectors.
As I have argued previously, when and if public services are outsourced there needs to be disclosure of providers' ownership and business models; remuneration and tax policy and practice; and their relationships with politicians and senior public officials. A substantial element of a provider's financial reward could be dependent on levels of user and wider stakeholder satisfaction. This could incentivise user focused behaviours.
Given the current understandable and necessary concern about the paucity of competition in markets such as energy and banking, it is important to note the similarities in some public service markets as the NAO identified in its Memorandum on Managing Government Suppliers - http://www.nao.org.uk/report/memorandum-managing-governments-suppliers/ The Government should ensure that contemporary information on the state of these markets and the degree to which they are competitive is in the public domain. It should also collate information on major suppliers across their contracts across the various sectors and their markets, and make this publicly available. There will be a role for the Competition Authority and others with user and wider stakeholder involvement.
If transparency, disclosure and accountability are essential, so too are processes to ensure that users of public services or advocates for them including voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations are involved at all stages of policy, commissioning and strategic operational decision making. There are various means of achieving this involvement but ultimately it does not matter how good the systems and processes are if the attitudes and behaviours of political and managerial leaders and staff are not right. Therefore, to make public services more user and citizen centric, it is necessary to have enlightened leadership and empowered staff - front line staff who have the time and licence to respond to their users and, if necessary and appropriate, vary provision to meet individual need and choice.
As I noted at the Select Committee, during a period of austerity and severe budget cuts, it becomes increasingly important to involve service users but ever more challenging to do so. Public sector leaders have to ensure that there is both time and resources to embed and support a user centricity to their services regardless of who provides them; and recognise that over time this may lead to longer term savings. For example, if home care staff are expected to work fifteen minutes slots with no time or payment for travel between client homes, it is very unlikely that users will receive a quality responsive bespoke service. And equally, if a local authority strips out all or most of its resources for public consultation and involvement, member scrutiny and/or local voluntary sector advocacy services, then local citizens will inevitably become further removed from their services and being able to shape them.
The next few years are going to be very challenging for the public sector, public services and those reliant on these services. More money is unlikely to be forthcoming so let's at least seek to ensure that the public can have greater confidence and more influence over their services and those who are delivering services to their communities. This has to be one of the major challenges and opportunities for the public sector in 2014.