The Blog

The Next Government Should Commit to a Public Services Pledge

In less than two weeks' time, the general election ballot boxes will be back in storage (though few would dare predict for how long). And then, sometime after 7th May, the UK will have a new government.

In less than two weeks' time, the general election ballot boxes will be back in storage (though few would dare predict for how long). And then, sometime after 7th May, the UK will have a new government.

I strongly believe that it will need a coherent set of policies for the future of our public services. Specifically, with the majority of public services in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland being devolved matters, and there being further moves towards greater devolution and decentralisation of public services across England, there is an urgent need for an 'English' public policy agenda.

Whilst there is much political discourse and campaigning on specific public services such as the NHS (and, to a lesser extent education, housing and policing) and the level of public expenditure, it is disappointing that there has been no significant debate about the generic role and nature of public services. This has been a missed opportunity, and it does seem to me that any new government will require a comprehensive rather than a fragmented set of policies for public services, growth, social justice, public expenditure and taxation - recognising that these are interdependent.

Surely it is time to acknowledge more widely that public services contribute hugely to and indeed help 'shape' the fundamentals of our economic, social and environmental wellbeing. Indeed, they partly define our values as a country. A moment's thought will reveal that they are about far more than just the functional delivery of outcomes for individuals. These outcomes are vital, but public services have an even greater contribution to make for they: represent the collective will of the people; contribute to fairness, social justice and equality goals; and they underpin our economic prosperity.

Over recent years, austerity and ideological policy have undermined public services and the public service 'ethos'. Marketisation, privatisation and outsourcing can, when introduced in the wrong way, diminish important attributes of public service - and it is evident that cuts have damaged and removed many public services.

The advent of a new government provides a belated chance to generate a major public debate on the role and ethos of public services; and the conditions that make them effective and sustainable. My hope would be that this could lead to a bold pledge on the future of public services, whatever the level of expenditure.

To encourage this debate, I set out below, what I believe should be core to a national public services pledge:

The Government and people believe that public services are symbolic of a shared commitment to fairness, social justice, greater equality, equality of opportunity, economic growth and prosperity and environmental sustainability.

Public services should primarily be funded collectively through progressive taxation and where charges are imposed, these should be based on the principle of ability to pay and not discourage use of services. No one should be excluded from access to high quality services because of their wealth or income or on any other discriminatory grounds.

The direct links between progressive taxation, public services and outcomes must always promoted and celebrated by government.

There needs to be an agreement on what services will be universal across the UK and which will be determined in localities and regionally.

All public services must be effective and efficient, whilst adding public value. Improvements in productivity should be pursued but in accordance with the values of this pledge.

The default position for public service commissioning, procurement and delivery should be based on the principles of co-design, co-production and co-monitoring, and review.

Independent advocacy and accessible information should be readily available for users of public services.

Choice for services can be for individuals and collectively. And when choice is available to individual service users and/or local communities, the exercise of this choice should improve outcomes and not lead to inefficiency, nor create inequality of access and/or outcomes.

Service users, whether individuals or communities, should have the right to financial redress when services fail them.

Staff involved in public service delivery should be respected, have trade union rights, be well rewarded, have long term permanent contracts, have access to skills training and be empowered to make decisions and to work with service users. The Living Wage should apply to all public services funded by public money.

A further default position should be that public services should usually be based upon collaboration and partnership rather than competition and markets; and use the latter with caution and only when this will add social value.

The provision of public services and their commissioning and procurement should always be transparent and accountable, with all providers from which ever sector including public, charitable, social or business sectors being subject to freedom of information legislation, being required to disclose financial and operational performance and being accountable through public transparency and reporting, independent audit, and media and political scrutiny.

All providers of public services should demonstrate and practice a public service ethos and add social value; and their profits should be proportionate to risk and investment, with profit capping or sharing where appropriate.

When a public body is considering outsourcing or privatising a public service, it should be required to publish and consult on the policy and business case for such action.

When public services are procured from charities, social enterprises, staff and/or user co-operatives and public sector bodies should not be excluded or discriminated against in favour of business sector bodies - and SMEs should not be discriminated against in favour of large corporates.

The public sector should always take positive action to secure social value and not obsess with cheapest when delivering or procuring services.

A public service pledge should lead to criteria against which all public policy and public service decisions should be tested.

There is a strong case for greater investment and expenditure in public services, and I hope that the next government will adopt policies to enable this. That said, whatever the new government's macro-economic policy, please let's have a real debate on and implementation of a "public service pledge" or a similar approach.