Tomorrow’s public services

24 Jul 13
Simon Griffiths and Henry Kippin

We have to make the case for public spending as a social spine and an engine of economic growth. If we don’t, there is a risk of exacerbating inequalities, undermining local economies and failing to meet future challenges

Observer journalist, Andrew Rawnsley, wrote that the ‘enduring question of British politics is about our public services’. These services now are under threat. The threat is partly economic, exacerbated by the current downturn and the government’s response to it. But it is also due to the impact of a range of social, economic and environmental changes to the way we live, work and interact.

A recent report estimated a doubling of the UK’s population over the age of 85 between 2010 to 2030 and noted a need for a 37% real-terms spending increase on social care and continuing healthcare for older people by 2022 just to keep pace with demographic changes.

In a recently published book, Public Services: a new reform agenda, we argue that it is time to rethink important questions about public services and the welfare state. Even if public spending were to be sustained, public services need rethinking to be fit for purpose.

Three questions are particularly important. First, what should the relationship between citizen and state be? The needs, demands and expectations of citizens have changed quite profoundly since the creation of the modern welfare state in the 1940s. To give an example, many of us are more ‘assertive’ about what we want from public services than ever before. We demand more from professionals and are less willing to be treated as passive recipients of services or advice.

Tomorrow’s public services must be grounded on a much fuller understanding of citizenship. We must move beyond earlier reforms that relied on simplistic ideas about how people behave and interact with the state. We have gone from perceiving citizens as passive recipients of public services after the Second World War to market-incentivised consumers under the New Public Management models of the 1980s and beyond. Today, notions of citizens as active ‘co-producers’ or ‘co-creators’ are important.

The question is now, how can citizens, the state and civil society work together to produce better outcomes? And how can we ensure that everyone is included in this new, more democratic, account of public services? Think tanks, such as the New Economics Foundation, have pioneered work on co-production in recent years.

A second question is over how public services should be structured. The metaphor of ‘a whole system’ or ‘an ecology’ is useful. The emphasis on systems is important. Systems are larger than markets, but can include them. Earlier theoretical approaches to public services assumed that they would either be provided directly by the state or by the market. A focus on systems allows us to get beyond this dichotomy.

We argue for an approach that is open to collaboration between sectors (public, private or third) and between departmental service ‘silos’. The state has a vital role to play in all this. It cannot be reduced solely to commissioner of services provided by the market. It has the ability to shape the ecology within which public services operate, manage overall performance and set the strategic direction, as well as being well placed to provide certain services directly or in partnership.

Collaborate CiC, a new institute examining better ways of working across sectors, is beginning to carry out exciting new work in this area.

The third question is over the fiscal arrangements needed to face the challenges ahead. The British economy has changed beyond recognition since 1945. Deindustrialisation, low pay, high unemployment and new forms of inequality have combined with a decline in collective worker representation to create new challenges. Many of these trends have been exacerbated by the economic downturn, which exposed the UK’s over reliance on the financial sector.

In a context of austerity, much has been made of the imperative to generate unprecedented efficiencies and to find new ways to unlock the latent energy of citizens. None of this is possible if public services are retrenched.  In a rebalanced economy, there must be a place for well-funded public services that are capable of enabling citizens and communities to be resilient through social and economic shocks and to thrive over the long term.

Without making the case for public spending as a social spine and an engine of economic growth, we risk exacerbating inequalities, undermining local economies, and undermining our ability to meet the huge societal challenges of the future. Our public services are vital: they help us to achieve things we could not achieve alone, and support us both individually and collectively; yet what we want from them is changing. Tomorrow’s public services must take account of this.

Simon Griffiths is a lecturer in politics at Goldsmiths University of London and Henry Kippin is a director of Collaborate CiC and an associate at RSA 2020 Public Services. They are co-authors with Professor Gerry Stoker of Public services: a new reform agenda (2013), published by Bloomsbury

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