The Blog

Time for Bold Progressive Public Services Agenda

The shape, scale and even role of public services is going to be transformed over the next few years because of the current Government's political and economic agenda. It is committed to a smaller state; public expenditure cuts, reductions and rebalancing; greater decentralisation and devolution (and some greater centralisation is areas such as education); and more contracting and privatisation.

By 2020 the English public services landscape could look very different from the current one. It will be no good any political party approaching the 2020 general election with public services policies designed for 2015 or 2010 or even earlier. This is particularly will be the case for The Labour Party.

The natural Labour position could be to revert to promoting the idea that only the public sector can and should deliver public services especially those funded by the state. This would be a mistake and I think it is a very remote possibility. It would be contrary to the popular community support that Jeremy Corbyn engendered. It would lead to public services failing to address the needs and choices of some of the most marginalised and vulnerable in society.

The anti-austerity agenda can be addressed by investment in public services which in turn if well deigned and focussed can offer opportunity and address inequality. Targeted public spending can reduce inequality and offer opportunity. Given that there will be less money such targeting will be essential but there will be a need to balance universally popular services with specific ones to address inequality and disadvantage because the majority of the population has to be on board and supportive of expenditure especially increased spending.

Public services are about more than providing a service to individuals - vital as this can be. They are about redistributing wealth and power; addressing inequalities; and making a positive economic impact. They must be based on some core principles of accountability, transparency and public value. They should be based on excellent employment practices. The public sector is not alone in being able to meet these principles.

There is little enthusiasm in the Labour Party to adopt many of the market based reforms of the New Labour Government. I am not arguing that they were effective or that they were not - and the available evidence is scant and non-conclusive. I would argue that the Labour leadership would be well advised to commission a review or to address in some other manner several questions relating the Blair-Brown public service policies and practices including major increases in spending, outsourcing, PFI and growth in the use of competition. The lessons of 1997-2010 need to be learnt - and the successes celebrated. However, it is important to move on to consider what is needed today and more specifically in 2020.

The evidence for the success and failures of PFI and outsourcing is mixed and there is precious little evidence. There tends to be more anecdotal commentary than evidence based analysis. This is a serious shortcoming especially given the current Conservative Government's zeal to outsource more and more public services. In opposition and in advance of the 2020 general election Labour needs both a clear analysis of the past Labour Government's public service reform agenda and a clear set of new policies.

Such a review should address issues relating to service performance including better outcomes of which there were many, access to services, the impact on the equality agenda, the implications for staff and the wider economic impact of outsourcing on local economies and the wider public finances if for example it leads to unemployment and more benefit claims. It should also examine the tax and remuneration practices of the companies involved as well as wider issues of democratic accountability. It should new progressive ways in which the business and social sectors can contribute and on what basis.

A review could consider if outsourcing can make a positive contribution and if so conditions are necessary for this to happen but there is no appetite and probably little practical reason to extend outsourcing but in 2020 many services will have been either outsourced or privatised so it will be necessary to have robust progressive policies to address this inheritance - these may not be taps that can be simply turned off in cost-free ways.

Whatever policies Labour adopts, I believe that the Party should base its approach to public services, their provision and funding firmly and unequivocally on its values and principles. It should debate and agree a values based approach for public services. Labour requires a public service narrative which recognises the need for further change - often radical change to reflect public rights and expectations; demographic change; localism and decentralisation; technological advance; financial constraint (by 2020 there will have been four more years of cuts); and the inheritance in 2020.

Such an approach would, in my opinion, embrace:

  • a recognition of the collective benefit of public services and not solely address them in terms of what they do for individual service users
  • a statement of citizen entitlement to services
  • a commitment to greater localism and decentralisation with local democratic control
  • a commitment to the collective nature of public services and the need for them to be funded primarily through collective progressive taxation
  • choice and personalisation of services for individuals, neighbourhoods and communities where this not in conflict with the wider public interest and is affordable
  • public service policy, design, provision and providers being fully transparent on use of resources and performance, and publicly accountable through elected politicians themselves accountable for outcomes, performance and use of resources
  • the pursuit of social and public value from all public services and public expenditure and acknowledging that inefficiencies have an opportunity cost across public services
  • collaboration ahead of competition
  • a recognition that staff are key stakeholders and should be fully involved in decision making and benefit from exemplar employment conditions, terms and conditions for staff
  • inclusive and transparent commissioning and procurement with an emphasis on social value
  • practices that include publication of and consultation on the business case when services are to be contracted
  • a greater role for the voluntary and community sector, social enterprises and user and staff led co-operatives in public service delivery
  • ensuring that non-public sector service providers should demonstrate transparency, a public service ethos, decent employment conditions, profit caps and contractual flexibility
  • regulation that promotes user and public interests ahead of provider or government interests; and involves service users

The current Government's programme is likely to do much damage to many public services and significantly change others. Labour needs to create an agenda to challenge the Government in ways that offer realistic principle-based alternatives and can attract wide support from across civil society and the public. This means basing campaigns on values and principles similar to those outlined above.

The challenge will be great. It will not be easy but for those who believe in strong effective public services designed to meet need, promote social justice, and create a compassionate and fair society there can be no option but to step up to this challenge.