Claire Fox succeeded in fulfilling the brief to do her usual thing and ‘stir it up’ when she spoke at our annual conference in Cardiff. She also took the opportunity to make her usual rallying cry for less state nannying.
The underlying tenet that what once constituted the public sphere is being eroded while the state delves further into the private lives of citizens warrants consideration. But is perhaps lost amid her evocation of some sort of municipal Dystopia; complete with spying helicopters and a moratorium on anything remotely resembling fun (Stop monitoring the public, The MJ, 1st October 2009).
We welcome debate on how scarce resources can be best targeted to achieve public value, which was, indeed, the theme of our conference. I think Claire is being slightly mischievous in her interpretation of this point. For us - and for service users - front-line means collecting the waste, cleaning the streets, providing affordable housing, caring for elderly and vulnerable people, feeding school kids, repairing the roads, cutting the grass in parks and a whole host of highly tangible services upon which people rely day in day out.
These local services have a huge bearing on the health and well-being of local communities. They are also important economically; with our research showing every local authority pound spent can generate £1.64 in the local economy. Promoting behavioural change that will reduce the longer-term economic and social costs of ill health and create a better environment actually means more effective use of public resources.
‘Co-production’ was a term used by speakers at our conference with first hand experience of making service improvements and multi-million pound savings by finding effective local service solutions from within their own in-house teams and communities. And doing things ‘with’ residents, rather ‘to’ or even ‘for’ them is surely the intention of all of us in local government. The reality is that the majority of people are happy to recycle and don’t want their taxes used to clean up after the few who drop cigarette butts or beer bottles. Is Claire suggesting that, instead of encouraging healthier lifestyles, school meals and high quality public spaces, councils should instead be promoting deprivation, misery and a return to the dark days of public squalor?
Since way, way before the recession began, APSE has been supporting the delivery of excellent front-line services and fighting against bureaucracy and waste. But focusing on the front-line does not mean councils should stop taking a wider approach to the health and well-being of residents; it goes hand in hand.
And yes, service users will defend against cuts that affect not only their lives, but also their life-chances.