Open Public Services
by Claudia Wood
This week’s Open Public Services white paper didn’t get as much coverage as the government had no doubt banked on. Part of this was due to the NOTW, but it was also partly due to the paper’s problematic content.
Accustomed as we are to white papers with clear, concrete (if not fully thought through) plans and legislative timetables, this one was a bit of a surprise, reading like a think piece, with lots of principles and concepts and only one or two specific proposals for the media to get their teeth into.
Some less generous commentators described it as a damp squib, following months of wrangling and political compromise to get it signed off from both sides of the coalition. And yes, it is true that the white paper primarily reiterates many previously announced reforms and floats a few ideas without any firm legislative commitments. But we shouldn’t underestimate the its import.
The fact is, the principles it articulates have the potential to change our entire way of life – increasing choice wherever possible, decentralising public services to the lowest appropriate level, opening public services to a range of providers, and so on.
But what is interesting is that these principles are not new, or even particularly radical. Much of the paper presents basic choice and contestability theory, the likes of which Blair took on board in the late 90s and which academics like Julian le Grand have been writing about for over a decade. Decentralising to the lowest level – subsidiarity – is a well worn political theory that was adopted by the EU in 1992. Opening public services to competitive pressures and payment by results has, of course, also had an (in)famous heritage going back to the mid 80s.
So a lot of the content is familiar territory. But what the white paper does do – and this is what makes it fundamentally new and game changing – is to bring these principles together in a single framework and apply them consistently to all public services. Choice and competition was always health and education territory. Now, everything from childcare, parks and tax collection get the Open Public Services treatment, with the government interpreting these principles for different service settings. And make no mistake – this approach could revolutionise the state and how citizens interact with it.
But – and at risk of contradicting myself – the paper’s impact could also be inherently limited. Because in spite of the its ambitious vision and a narrative encompassing everything from school vouchers to community assets, its focus is on structures, with no consideration of culture. This could be the strategy’s undoing.
Take another look at the white paper and make note. It talks about financial structures (payment by results, personal budgets, commissioning, contracting), democratic structures (neighbourhood councils, elected community representation), regulatory and legal structures (right to choice, ombudsman, floor standards).
But what it doesn’t do is talk about people. That fact is, the success of the new public service vision relies on on well informed, motivated ‘consumer citizens’ who have the time (and the broadband connection) to check a raft of digital public service information and make an informed choice of service, or to sit on neighbourhood councils, participate in mutuals, and elect representatives to make decisions about local assets. It also requires public servants to be enlightened and expert commissioners, comfortable with relinquishing their control of services and treating voluntary and private sector providers in an equal manner.
The reality is, of course, people are often apathetic, pushed for time, or simply unable to fulfil these functions. An ill-informed and uninterested public can scupper the best laid structural plans.
So there were several aspects of the white paper that were notable by their absence: the discussions around advice and advocacy to get excluded and less capable groups involved; the massive public engagement exercise required to get buy-in from people with limited time and inclination to sift through user rating websites before getting childcare; and the cultural shift required by professionals within local authorities that is so critical to a diversity of service providers.
The Open Public Services white paper is, without doubt, visionary in its scope and ambition. The government must be congratulated for aspiring to something so intellectually coherent. But everyone knows, you ignore the realities of public apathy and obstructive professional cultures at your peril. It would be a missed opportunity of monumental proportions if the government fell at the final hurdle because it overlooked the human element in its structural vision.
So now, the hardest part is yet to come. The government must get people – ordinary people – on board. To participate, to choose, to demand and to elect. And the prize will be public services that are the envy of every modern global economy. It’s certainly worth a shot.