Thursday, July 7, 2011

An Open Future for Public Services? Think Again....

This week sees the publication of the Coalition's new Open Public Services White Paper. From what I understand, its content has been the subject of a tussle between the Steve Hilton wing - who see public service reform as a touch-paper for the Big Society (mutuals, community and third sector providers etc) and the Treasury who, I am fairly reliably informed, see BS as a load of old shit and just want to do a mixture of heavy-duty public sector efficiencies and quiet outsourcing to the private sector.

Whatever the truth is, the Bill we see will not be the free-for-all we were promised by the Coalition last year. Why? In one word - NHS. The idea of an open market for public services has, in effect, been put back by the revised Lansley reforms.

Even if the remaining policy is actually more market-friendly than the public realise, the politics has overtaken the policy and it's now virtually impossible to bring out a public services bill that is about 'privatisation', even in its most benign forms. As my friend Nick Seddon of Reform said just the the other day, you don't hear Andrew Lansley or anyone else talking about creating the biggest social enterprise sector in the world any more.

So what will be in the Bill? It will be a nice warm bath for fans of the Big Society I expect. There will be stuff in there about charities and communities taking over services and probably quite a bit about mutuals. And relatively little about the private sector, I anticipate. So a triumph for the forces of civil society?

Well, not quite. The brutal truth about the civil society sector, including social enterprise, is that we probably stood a better chance, as we did in the health sector, if the provider market was properly opened up to all sectors. This bill is, in effect, the work of an enfeebled, cowed Government that feels chastened by public opinion on the NHS and is becoming increasingly led by political rather than policy considerations.

So, rather than sponsoring a powerful Public Service Bill that has the key parts of the public sector properly opened up to other sectors, we will see some opening to civil society organisations which, in reality, will translate into a fairly small overall effect on the whole. If I were David Prentice or Bob Crowe, this is the kind of outcome that would suit me.

The truth is that it is only when you have bold, landmark legislation - like the academies bill that you see radical change. In Suffolk, where I live and am a Councillor, over half of our upper schools have 'stepped out' of LA control to become academies. This is because the centre has been very clear and strong about this. LAs themselves cannot stop them and when you take away the impediments it happens. The speed has been breathtaking. As a school governor I have seen it go from thought to reality in a few short month.

The same is not true in other parts of the public sector. Anyone else in the County Council has to go through the usual impedimentia and it is really still rather hard to spin out- even in a spin-out-friendly council. The academy experience tells us that it isn't the actual doing that is difficult, it is the organisational context stuff that is hardest. Most of the spin-outs I deal with tell us they spend tremendous energy dealing the organisations they are are part of, none of whom are compelled to let them go.

My point here is that in what is still a highly centralised country, legislative drive from the centre makes a massive difference. My fear about this new Open Public Services Bill is that it will not be the landmark White Paper it needs to be but a here-today-gone-tomorrow piece of candy-floss that keeps the sector happy but makes no real dent on the real challenge of public services transformation in this country.

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