Public services and public leadership

It was a long day yesterday to go to the Public Services Trust 2020 conference held at the RSA.  (Hence no blog.)  It was an interesting day, with lots of discussion about the future of service delivery and its relationship to the Big Society.  Some good networking as well.  I’ll come back another time to how it connected to my thoughts on writing.  Let’s stick with the policy for a moment.

The Trust was set up by the great and the good who could see that the New Public Management of the 1980’s has about run its course, and that, even before the Lehman’s collapse, we needed to reshape the costs and methods of service delivery. The structure of financial welfare alone contains all sorts of perverse incentives.  Generally, as far as I understand it, the Trust assumes that there should be some form of safety-net and protection below which no member of our society should be expected to fall, but that level is not precisely defined.

So:  lots of ideas. An individual welfare account, much more imaginative and open use of social media, lively debates about the hypothecation of taxed or levied income.  Good stuff.  But I left feeling rather unsatisfied, and I think for two reasons.

There was almost no discussion about where jobs are going to come from.  Participation in and support for economic development and regeneration is a fundamental part of placemaking, and of local leadership.    It’s all very well talking about welfare to work, when there’s no work.    This implies a deeper question.  Is the job of the state only to serve, or does it also have a leadership and future-shaping responsibility?  I believe in the latter, but I think the nature and parameters of that responsibility were not addressed in yesterday’s discussion.

Secondly, there was a lot of focus on those services targeted on children and vulnerable people.  Yes, these are expensive, and yes, we are sitting on a demographic time-bomb. But lots of public money, including at local authority level, is spent on unglamorous and universal services, like highways and waste management.  Or on much-loved, electorally crucial provision such as parks, cemeteries and libraries.  (Libraries!  Now there’s  whole other post.)  There are long-term and strategic issues to be managed in those areas, as much as in care for older people.  In the short-term, the debate didn’t offer a lot of help for those people who must make horrendous decisions in the next few weeks and have neither time nor money to invest in long-term reshaping of their organisation’s relationship with the public.

There were moments of passion.  Suppose we each have an individual welfare account, from which we can draw for major items such as  a house.  I don’t have children, don’t run a car, have not (yet) been a big user of the NHS.  I’m hugely in credit.    Why wouldn’t I withdraw my money and pay off my mortgage (especially at the moment)?  I don’t think a general belief that people are nicer than that is strong enough.  And I am happy to pay taxes, believe in my contribution to a peaceful, prosperous society, want the system to function well.

So, the debate seems to have just begun, despite the formidable and impressive reports produced by the PST over the last two years.  In the meantime, it remains easy to see talk of the Big Society as a fig-leaf for cuts.

About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my other websites to find out more.
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