No more political football

21 May 15

Public services need a style of leadership that focuses on spending money well and not the tactical avoidance of savings.

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So the vote is declared and we know who’s up and who’s down. The blues beat the reds by 6%, with 37% of votes winning 51% of seats.

So what’s in store for public services before the next general election on 7 May 2020?

First, I would avoid the harbingers of doom. However many difficult choices are being avoided, not least during the election campaign, services will “keep calm and carry on” because resilience is a facet of public management.

And importantly, beyond any daily headlines, we must focus on the trajectories of public spending, the demands for services and the planned resources envelopes. The past five years of fiscal consolidation have taught us how to manage this; but of course in some public services, particularly the protected areas, we have picked only the low hanging fruit.

We should now seriously address the many real underlying issues in the more difficult to manage categories. Public sector pensions, an ageing population, waste in unprotected areas, over-centralisation in England and, for local government, too many councils – these are all live issues generating costs. Will they be addressed or avoided?

Public services must avoid the risk in the next five years of being seen as defenders of vested interest, opposing reform to protect the status quo. Successive governments have wanted to see more diverse delivery (say through mutuals), greater personalisation, direct payments, enhanced commissioning/integration and accountability through elected mayors.

Have all public bodies embraced all change? The answer is no, with most responses being from trade groups’ perspectives – be they councils or NHS providers or housing associations – giving their organisational perspectives and pitches and cherry picking the directions they like and don’t like.

Public services will need to put the case for overall system reform and challenge some of the sacred cows we have all come to accept. Take health, where much of the election debate centred on the additional £8bn needed. There is a risk of over-programming new resources to both extend services, for example GP hours, as well as alleviate spending pressures. It will damage healthcare quality if the near-crisis in accident and emergency departments is not assuaged; but it is not evident to organisations where system leadership at national and local level resides to stop the pretence that things aren’t getting grim.

In terms of behaviours, in developing integrated services and cooperative approaches to delivery, we will need to understand how collaborative system leadership is best focused. And with devolved powers to combined authorities we will need to review and reform governance, public scrutiny and local accountability to test both behaviours and a focus on intended outcomes and not simply single organisational interests.

Given the increasing likelihood of full fiscal devolution in Scotland and choices around EU membership, we must even keep in mind the possibility of wide-ranging constitutional reform and its potential impact on public services. We must insist on evidence-based policymaking, founded on accounts grade information, so that spending commitments are fashioned in the population’s long-term interests.

So, the next few years will be challenging for public services. To influence what happens over the parliament, public bodies must not be seen to conflate the interests of their clients with their organisational interests. Systems thinking needs a new style of leadership that focuses on spending money well and not the tactical avoidance of savings. It means promoting which organisations need resources beyond one’s own and stepping up to the plate to effect change.

  • Rob Whiteman

    Chief executive of CIPFA since 2013, after leading the UK Border Agency and the Improvement & Development Agency. Previously, he was CEO at Barking and Dagenham council.

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