Friday, January 22, 2010


Have been a bit quiet of late, I know. Lots going on at work which I can't yet talk about publicly but will be doing after February 11th. Those who know me well will know what this is. For those that don't, it begins with an M and sounds a bit like Murder. While barely a ear in the cornfield of world-events, this M-thing will mean a lot of change for me personally. Anyway, more on that later.

Am thinking a lot about public services at the moment. I think we are going to see the biggest changes in public sector since the 1940s during the next few years. Sadly it has taken a financial crisis to get us here but, perversely, I am glad. In 15 years acquaitance I have been stunned by how far public services are from what is happening in other parts of the economy and society. A separate world. Like one of those museums where people dress like Victorians and make their own clothes. Just bizarre.

This sounds insulting I know. I feel my public sector readers already heating their keyboards...But, you know, it ain't personal. Some of the most talented people and noblest spirits in this country work in the public sector. My wife and half of my friends do. The problem isn't the people. It really isn't. It's other things. Too much political involvement in delivery. Lack of competition in key areas. Organisations that are too big and diversified to be good at anything in particular. Unions that hold too much sway. Professions that control resources rather than citizens. A universal feeling of disempowerment even at the top. A loss of confidence.

All this won't be solved in five years, not even ten. It is a 20 year project. Someone however has to get it going. I have become convinced that the Labour Party is too beholden to the professions and unions to take serious action. For a long time, the Tories were simply untrustworthy when it came to the common good - seeing this only in disaggregration. Today's Tories seem to realise that there is a `commons' which we must make a priority. A commons in which public services - however delivered- are the correct focus of political discourse and action - not an afterthought or a concern simply of the centre-left.

Does this mean I trust the Tories? No, I don't. Politicians, I know myself, are often staggeringly shallow and poorly informed. Many don't read or think a great deal. A surprising number are driven by ego and power alone. And George Osborne is, from all reports, a right shit. However, they will I believe be the next Government. And given this, and the fact that their analysis isn't all wrong, I invest more hope in them than I would be if Labour were to win again.

My own party is, of course, not mentioned here. That is mainly because we won't win nor, I believe, hold the balance of power. This pessimistic assessment comes from the two-horse nature of the forthcoming contest added to the fact that the Lib Dems do not, this time, have clear stand-out ideas such as getting out of Iraq or abolishing tuition-fees or free care for the elderly. Not that these are realistic any more I agree. But the party needs something more than a more `liberal Britain'. Sorry Nick, I like you but this isn't going to grab them.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Citizens or Consumers?

Despite the commitment to public sector reform from all political ­parties, it is still unclear which ideas will dominate as we reshape public services in the coming decade.

There are calls for locally-based, co-produced and self-directed public services, but there is an easier approach to reform that is much further advanced: super-commissioning, or the aggregation of different workstreams and small contracts into ever-larger contracts for high-volume services, delivered mostly by big national organisations. Welfare-to-work services, secure care services for people with mental health problems and care of elderly people have all seen rapid consolidation to ­bigger players.

Unfeted and largely unsung, super-commissioning appears to be growing more than personal budgets, where there are still only 30,000 or so users. It means bigger contracts and fewer players, but, to be fair, can result in faster, cheaper and better public services.

So will the next government take a gamble on localised, self-directed, co-produced services? History would suggest not. It would break precedent for any government to tolerate the quirks, messiness and risks of letting public services evolve from the bottom up.

It would also be much harder for any government to crank the handle in Whitehall to shape costs and outcomes. On top of this, there would be postcode lotteries, duplication and genuine ­limits on what can be achieved, as well as predictable calls from the media for the government to "get a grip".

However, these are unusual times. A cut-down version of existing services will not deliver enough savings, and politicians, particularly those on the centre-right, now seem aware of a fork-in-the-road choice – a choice set out by Simon Duffy, director of the Centre for Welfare Reform and one of the founders of the In Control project, as that between the professional gift model of public services versus the citizen model. Are we going to be consumers of "gifted" public services, designed and provided by other people, elsewhere, or are we citizens who not only shape our own public services but also contribute to the services of family, friends and neighbours?

One demonstration of this is a new London service organised by public services thinktank Participle, whose Get-Together service enables older ­people to connect up, for themselves and others to fight isolation.

Duffy's citizen model will probably be given some sort of chance by a future government, but it is politically risky. Super-commissioning isn't nearly as loved by the politicians, but it quickly saves money by lifting and shifting large tracts of the public sector, mostly un­reformed, out into new bodies.

Both sides have testing questions to answer. Can a citizen-based model of public service work if a demanding, highly-taxed population is unwilling or unable to take more responsibility? Do such services cost less? Who is accountable when things go wrong? Might citizen-based public services be strangled by the bureaucratic bindweed that comes with any relationship with the state?

Super-commissioning of public services also faces stern questions. High transaction costs could mean more spent on regulation and verification. And what is the place for the millions who may be willing to help others in their community as part of a new civic understanding that also involved being cared for themselves?

The citizen model sees a place for this massive potential resource, but it is harder to see the role of such a ­contribution in the world of super-­commissioning.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Predictions for 2010

Big charities going under. A rash of major mergers. Mass-sackings of CEOs. Fall-outs with Government. My predictions for 2009 all turned out to be wrong, in fact, it was business as usual for many of us. So am I eating humble pie? Well - no. I think I was right in everything - except my timing.

Our sector, you see, is a bit like the public sector - trapped by its recent history. With noble exceptions, most of our major charities are simply doing a better job than the Government of delivering First Generation Public Services. These services, though much better and more efficient, share the doomed formula of high cost and low effectiveness of nearly all First Generation Public Services.

Therefore, the absolutely critical challenge facing all major UK charities is how to create Second Generation Public Services that are better, cheaper and faster - and “co-produced” by a population used to having things done for them. This is the public services equivalent of moving from the mainframe computer to the IPlayer in one go. It is going to require a revolution. In innovation. In design. In delivery.

How might this play out? Well, the learning from other sectors is that dominant First Generation organisations tend to be usurped by smaller, more imaginative ones. Small-scale experimentation, backed by risk-capital generating thousands of ideas, a handful of which become the mainstays of the future.

Although we must be realistic about comparisons with Silicon Valley, the forthcoming fiscal crisis is going to open up the public realm to similar processes. Not only will this be the end-game for many public sector agencies, it could be ours too with the cancellation of contracts for standard-issue public services from our bigger charities. Instead, new players will come along with entirely new ways to produce social benefit.

If you think this sounds far-fetched, then wake up. Participle is a social business which redesigns public services from the ground-up. Founded in 2007, without a legacy of First Generation services, Participle is free to focus on clean-break approaches – which many councils are already buying into. Whether the big charities behave like Participle - or still carry on fighting the last war - will be the sector’s biggest single test in the 2010s.

Which brings me back to those predictions. Firstly sackings. There are not enough radical thinkers leading top charities so, yes, some CEOs will need to make way. Secondly mergers. There will be an urgent need for capital to fund innovation and redesign so there will be more mergers. Thirdly, relations with Government. The sector will need to take bigger risks in its relationship with Government if we are to become a decisive force for change in the 2010s. The relationship can take it. We must stop the toadying and have the confidence to lead.