Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg opened the summit in St Albans by posing the question, how do we reinvent public services in the current climate? Perhaps he was referring to the impossible conundrum of raising standards and quality, whilst demand is increasing and huge cuts are being made.
He stressed the need to modernise public services by increasing plurality of provision, criticised the trade unions for being protectionist and argued that he was strongly against a market based approach and privatisation, as he doesn’t believe the private sector are inherently better at delivering services.
During questions the DPM was asked about the letter from 90 Lib Dem Local Government Group Leaders that had appeared in the Times that morning criticising the cuts that the coalition Government is imposing on public services. He expressed the view that he didn’t think you moved the debate forward by conducting a megaphone debate.
I then asked him whether he thought there should also be an onus on Ministers to avoid megaphone diplomacy, particularly those who have launched an onslaught on public servants who have given their working life’s to improving public services. The DPM agreed that it was unhelpful to conduct a debate in such a fashion and that the focus should be on equity, standards, responsiveness and affordability rather than a political slanging match.
David Walker lightened the mood with a much needed joke – A man says to the Doctor I am addicted to Twitter, the Doctor replies I am sorry, I don’t follow you.
David outlined his view that some of the problems with public management are permanent because culturally they are built in, he also stressed that public services are political by definition. He went on to make a plea for the voice of public managers to be heard as he believes they have a vital role to play in the debate that is taking place on the future of public services. He suggested that public services had been brainwashed by marketeers and that he found it incredulous that little effort had been made to expose the limits of markets and neo-liberalism despite the major role this had played in creating the recession.
Jon Sibson of PWC and Will Straw from IPPR then led a session on building foundations for growth, when asking them about the one area where I believe growth potential exists, the green economy, I quipped that ‘Asking a public service audience about growth at present was a bit like asking General Custer to launch a recruitment drive for the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.’ Jon indicated that he believed it would be two Parliaments time before we experienced any real growth again in the economy.
Peter Marks the Group Chief Executive at the Co-operative offered that ‘everyone talks about the John Lewis model being the answer but this is a producerist model built on maximising financial benefit to employees, should this really be an aspiration for public service delivery?’ His suggestion was that co-operatives and mutuals should be built around consumerist models and must be about the public good. APSE's research into cooperatives and mutuals has also identified this issue.
In a workshop on organisational change I asked the panel if they felt that there was a clear narrative on the big society and what we are trying to change to over the next three or four years? I suggested that it feels a bit like a science lab experiment that could go wrong and can we really afford this approach. Local authority Chief Executive Katherine Kerswell was the most vociferous in her response by suggesting that we don’t want a blueprint for the future, it's better if we create our own future and leave room for entrepreneurial creativity.
Christian Bason the Director of the Danish Government’s innovation unit then gave a brilliant talk on how to create the correct environment for innovation to flourish; he illustrated this by using numerous examples of approaches taken in Scandinavia.
Chief Executives John Barradell from Brighton and Andrea Hill from Suffolk then outlined their visions of what the public should expect from the state in the future. John spoke about a reduction in provision and the use of models such as cooperatives to make up shortfalls in provision.
Andrea then spoke about Suffolk’s vision of being strategic but not a provider by divesting itself of services, she spoke of reductions in residential care, library provision and even Lollipop people, this provoked a pretty hostile response from much of the audience with one person making the plea don’t let me grow old on your watch. Others asked if elected members were having an input in Suffolk or whether it was just Andrea’s view. Richard Kemp from the LGA suggested that the big society approach may be okay for middle class people but in areas of deprivation such as in Liverpool, for groups such as dementia sufferers there isn’t an army of qualified volunteers to fall back on – the less fortunate in society desperately need public services.
Peter Holbrook the Chief Executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition was asked if social enterprise was the panacea we are looking for and he said no but it was gathering momentum as an economic model as a result of market failure.
All in all it was a useful event to assess if the alternative models of delivery and approach to public services that are being touted have any legs, having heard from the experts I think the jury is still very much out amongst them and I remain a long way from convinced that this isn’t just distracting people from dealing with the impact of the severe cuts that have been made to public services.