Protect and survive

13 Mar 09
MIKE THATCHER | It was billed by the prime minister as an opportunity to rethink the role of public services in light of the ‘biggest global financial market failure in history’.

It was billed by the prime minister as an opportunity to rethink the role of public services in light of the ‘biggest global financial market failure in history’.

Working together, the paper published by the government this week, offers a vision of personalised services and greater choice. Public servants will be given greater flexibility, while being held more accountable to parents, patients, residents and citizens.

It’s hard to argue against such a philosophy, but also difficult to see much that’s new in it or any acceptance that we have entered a new world order. Gordon Brown’s post-credit crunch vision appears very similar to his – and Tony Blair’s – ideas in the boom years.

What is new – such as allowing patients to post online reviews of their GPs or fast-tracking City bankers into teaching jobs – appears tokenistic and ill thought-out.

With the UK economy likely to shrink this year by at least 3% and the public finances in disarray, most managers – and service users – are more concerned about preserving core services than tweaking around the edges.

The paper indicated that the state will have to withdraw completely from some areas and sell off more public assets. As Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne tells PF, we can expect more detail in next month’s Budget.

Research from Nesta, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, shows the extent of the problem. It suggests that by 2025 the taxpayer could face a £500bn bill to pay for the costs of an ageing society, long-term health conditions and the impact of climate change.

More worryingly, over half the senior managers questioned said that unless new approaches are adopted, public service provision will be broken within five years. Nesta chief executive Jonathan Kestenbaum summed up the challenge. ‘Yesterday’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems won’t work,’ he said.

Brown has shown he can be innovative when it comes to the financial crisis. He has all but nationalised the banks, produced a fiscal stimulus and introduced the joys of quantitative easing to the economy.

The prime minister needs to adopt the same radical approach to reforming the public services if they are to survive the onslaught to come.

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