Public: Leaner, Fitter, Meaner?


Jan 4, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in The Guardian on January 4, 2007.

Keep the punters happy: To ensure their continued survival in a global economy, public services should aim their wares at the middle classes, argues Tom Ling

What drivers of change are unavoidable (give or take a world war, a major pandemic or similar catastrophe)? Future public services will continue the search for less bureaucratic delivery mechanisms; engage new social partners in delivering services; build in contestability, maintain choice and seek to delight consumers; place public services at the interface between the forces of globalisation and localisation; negotiate a route between the pressure to be more complex and the need for accountable steering of public services.

At worst, these trends could lead to public services that are chaotic, that leave the worst off worse off, with programmes that are too complex to explain to citizens or to evaluate for effectiveness, that offer artificial choice to irritated customers, that leave citizens unable to negotiate their role in a globalising world, and where a lack of accountability and meaningful contestability foster authoritarian and cynical public servants.

But none of this need happen. Let us imagine that in 2017 we have created public services that are fair, effective, politically sustainable, and affordable.

First, bureaucracy will still provide the core structure for services where central steerage and uniformity of provision outweigh unresponsiveness. Military command structures, tax and benefit systems and inspectorates may all continue to have bureaucratic elements. Elsewhere, there will be gains to be made by exploiting coordinating mechanisms including networks, markets and quasi-markets and partnerships.

However, these non-bureaucratic mechanisms also come at a cost. They create new dependencies. A public service can only harness the goodwill, local knowledge, and organisational capacity of partner agencies if they benefit. Measurable benefits that flow to all concerned will underpin successful post-bureaucratic services.

A sophisticated process of information gathering and evaluation will be needed to produce independent and verifiable data demonstrating where the costs lie and where the benefits flow. The challenge will be to build evaluation into the performance improvement of public services rather than creating an additional bureaucracy. RAND Europe has been asking how to provide an evidence base and metrics to support organisational learning and peer learning, and engage professionals and managers in quality improvement.

Someone said partnership is the suppression of mutual loathing in pursuit of government money. This cynicism will need to be overcome if new partners in delivering public services are to be engaged. Reducing crime will unavoidably involve partners in crime prevention (focusing on deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation); community-based prevention (building cohesive communities); situational prevention (crime reduction measures based on the physical environment); and developmental/risk-focused prevention (targeting early risk and protection).

Similarly, encouraging healthy diets and exercise will involve food manufacturers, schools, advertisers, the mass media, sports organisations, town planners and so on. Successful delivery will involve overcoming a coalition of the self-interested, who may cream off the easiest clients, and agree only on the lowest common area for action. In this world the needy might be served, but only at the expense of the neediest. The best schools will thrive while poor schools crumble. In the criminal justice system it may do little to slow the drift to mass incarceration of the most disaffected. Labour market policies will successfully address the more able unemployed and leave more chaotic individuals unaffected.

Ironically, the solution will lie partly in creating public services that delight the middle classes. Building political support for improving public services will only be achieved if substantial sections of the organised and civic-minded middle classes derive pleasure from them. The welfare state was built largely with the active support of the organised working class. Future politicians will have to find additional sources of political support for public services.

Crime reduction schemes that focus on surveillance and punishment will stand much more chance of success if they are associated with building safer environments for all, supporting civic groups, and providing support for all children in their early years. This will not mean providing choice in a way that only increases unequal outcomes. But it will mean that contestability and user power is a clear mechanism of quality improvement.

Much will hinge on building market-like mechanisms that reward responsive public services without increasing inequality. Middle-income taxpayers will not tolerate funding services from which they never benefit or which fail to satisfy.

Governments will have to attempt all of this in the context of the growing capacity of essentially global organisations and processes to shape the lives of citizens. Public services will be crucial to mediating this engagement; partly by shaping and constraining the impact of global trends on domestic life, and partly by equipping citizens to participate effectively. The nation state will still be the most important focus of political identity and loyalty in 10 years' time, but how to maintain it while simultaneously supporting local communities to provide clusters of skills, capacities, and finance capable of harnessing the creative destruction of global forces?

Tom Ling is director of evaluation and audit for RAND Europe, an independent not-for-profit research institute.

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