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.

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