The challenge for change has been set – requiring a seismic shift in the delivery of public services. The White Paper signals ‘a decisive end to the old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you-are-given model of public services.’ (Public Services White Paper, p.6). There can be no doubts that the depth of public spending cuts have increased the complexities and urgency of delivering this change. However the policies outlined in the White Paper are not just about achieving value for money. It is also an opportunity to rethink and reform how services are designed, to systematically engage with communities and gain a better understanding of how to integrate services and create better outcomes. It is an opportunity give people more control over the services they receive and lead to better public services for all.
Releasing the grip of state control encourages bids for public work from voluntary groups, charities, joint ventures and the private sector. However, many public sector workers are likely to be unenthusiastic over job losses or reapplying to take on a service. There are also question marks over how accountability, right to choice and payment by results will work for specific or complex services. Is the public sector too risk averse for such change? Do the voluntary and private sectors have the capacity to take on service provision?
The reforms aim to reduce unnecessary bureaucratic burdens, duplication and overspending. Freedom of information data will increase transparency, putting power in the hands of people, increasing choice and allowing them to hold service providers to account. Opening up public services to a range of providers fosters greater competition to offer better services, ones that are tailored to local needs and allow for more innovative and flexible models. The government plans see competition as crucial to raising the standards of quality. What is the role of local authorities in making this new approach work? Responsibility lies in setting up investment and advisory services to help community projects and organisations have a rigorous business plan, ensuring a level playing field and fair funding and access for all. Council and policy leaders will need to understand the limits of what can be achieved within core budgets and what the acceptable operational risk across services will be.
How will frontline services be affected in this period of upheaval, and do authorities realistically have the timescales to manage performance, service outcomes and set accountable frameworks?
At the Public Sector Reform: Opening Up Services seminar we will explore how we can seize the opportunities presented in the white paper, engage with communities and new providers, and deliver credible benefits to public service users.