Sunday, December 6, 2009

Trust or Contract?

What will be the dominant ideas in public services in the next decade? Local or industrial-scale? Community-run - or conventionally managed? Delivered mostly by ordinary people – or qualified professionals? Funded on the basis of trust – or ever tigher contracts?

Looking into the 2010s there seems to be two boats racing down the river towards us toward the open sea beyond the next election. One is the Good Ship Community, a gaily painted river boat. It is captained by Tory Iain Duncan Smith but on its pretty decks we see all sorts of people who share a belief in small-is-beautiful, in bottom-up community solutions. They share a passionate belief in the unleashed power of social capital to solve entrenched social problems – and a belief in trust over contracts as the basis of efficient public services.

The other boat is the HMS Contract, a large pleasure-cruiser whose wake slaps the boughs of the Community. Its tougher-minded crew share the other boat’s belief that the state isn’t the best solution. But they are signed up not to a million blooming flowers of local particularism, but, instead, a vast `scaling-up’ of proven solutions, a new Super-DNA of `what works’, all delivered in a business-like, professional way - and sealed with contracts. They admire the intentions of HMS Community but don’t really think it is a serious approach to large-scale change.

Both vessels are ploughing towards to open sea with hope - and not a little momentum. Though smaller, the Good Ship Community has the backing right-of-centre politicians. Its offer of hope, its trenchant critique of big, top down approaches and its potential financial savings make political sense. What the Good Ship lacks right now in method, it makes up for in its plucky appeal to trust, mutual care and social entrepreneurialism .

HMS Contract isn’t nearly as loved by the politicians. But the bigger boat already has huge momentum. Its crew knows that there will be an immediate imperative, from 2011, to save billions by quickly moving large tracts of the public sector out into new bodies which are not only more efficient but also more responsive and innovative. The sheer industrial-scale of this exercise will, believe the crew of HMS Contract, require heavy-lifting of major players from both the charitable and private sectors.

The timescales and big numbers involved here – tens of billions – will, almost certainly, invoke a high managerial nature change-process. This would mean, in turn, that HMS Contract would be far more `fit for purpose’ than the more charming, but far less easy-to-engage Good Ship.

And what the crew of HMS Contract will tell you, sotto voce, is that local, social capital-based solutions just won’t be quick enough to put in place and won’t be sufficiently uniform, predictable or measurable enough to stop politicians worrying about standards. And, on top, they might not be particularly cheap.

It is true that both sides have some testing questions to answer. Can indeed a Trust-based approach to public services, in which contracts play little or no part, guarantee real-world delivery? What about accountability when things go wrong? Might small community ventures soon get strangled by the bindweed of bureaucracy that comes with money from the state?

And, to ask a very hard question, might this fragmented approach to change risk the repeated wheel-reinvention that happens when you don’t just take the proven best model and run with it?

However, HMS Contract also faces tough questions. Could the heavy transaction costs associated with the contract-culture actually result in more, not less waste? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the place in public services for of the millions of ordinary citizen who aren’t professionals or managers, who just want to do some good for others in their community? While the Good Ship welcomes this citizen-army on board, it is harder to see their place on HMS Contract.

It is my hope that the answers to both sides’ questions lie with the other. In collaborations between the Good Ship and HMS Contract which bring the best of both to bear.

We shall see.

1 comment:

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