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Public sector reformers – we need you

November 13, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surely supporting people to take more control of their lives, in association with each other, and with fewer barriers is mainly about volunteerism and neighbourhood action rather than who runs the job centre or how civil servants and front line professionals operate.

The truth is though, we are going to need public sector reformers, or as I prefer to call them – public reformers – just as we will need social entrepreneurs and civically engaged business people and workers to support this shift in power and control to citizens from within. The system needs to change to be more responsive, less obstructive, and more tailored to how people live so they can get more involved in ways that better suit modern constraints on our time and resources and particularly in deprived areas where the state often fails to help the people it should with its one size fits all approaches.

The most striking aspect of the recently published departmental business plans was the crystallisation of the Coalition’s commitment to push power and responsibility down to communities and front line public service professionals. It was woven into the detail of each and every department’s plan. As David Cameron said, the plans were about “power to public sector workers, power to communities… a radical redistribution of power from government to communities and people”.

So there’s a clear theme here – Central Government should be focused on allowing public services to be steered by the people who work in them in response to the needs of the people who use them as well as directly or jointly by and with citizens. This theme is move away from top-down bureaucratic programmes and associated fixed targets to an approach where standards are set by the best service providers and transparency online and offline helps hold them to account alongside a strengthened role for Parliamentary and local democracy, with the help of local and national media, and citizens themselves.

Previous Governments have talked the talk about such empowerment but this Government is starting to walking the walk. This is set to be a cross Government effort. To illustrate, here are a few tasters from individual business plans and also some examples where progress is already being made:

Cabinet Office – The first wave of Pathfinder Mutuals are already active with twelve employee ownership projects taking control of service provision such as youth support and learning disability services. The next phase of pathfinders is to be launched by December 2010 and in January next year the department will publish plans to further expand employee ownership.

Department for Communities and Local Government – An end to the ring-fencing of grants to local government, except for the dedicated schools grant and the public health grant, by April 2011. This will hugely increase the ability of local authorities to respond to the specific needs of the local population.

Department for Education – Introduction of Free Schools with the first up and running by Sept 2011. The first free school groups are already working with the Department for Education and the New Schools Network to develop and finalise their plans.

Department of Health – Plans to give GPs and GP coalitions full power to commission health services for their patients from April 2013. Other groups of front line health professionals are already working with the Department to set up social enterprises to run local services such as a homeless healthcare service.

Business Innovation and Skills – Launch of a civil society red-tape taskforce to identify ways of reducing the bureaucratic burden on social enterprises and voluntary organisations, reporting by May 2011.

Whether you agree or not with these underlying policies you cannot dispute that they represent on the whole a desire to shift power to the frontline and citizens away from Whitehall. Of course, a lot still needs to be learnt in each of the cases above as elsewhere about how to support transition and overcome the technical barriers to getting involved. However, this is only one side of the coin – the onus is also very much on communities and groups of public service workers to engage and grasp their opportunity.

An area where the active engagement will be absolutely critical is the intention to allow groups of public service staff to club together and  “spin out” from public sector employment to form independent employee-owned social enterprises. Don’t get me wrong, great results can be achieved from within Public Sector organisations but it can take even the most inspirational public sector leaders years to effect meaningful change from within public sector bureaucracy. Giving a group of staff a fresh start in their own independent organisation allows them to quickly sweep away unnecessary and non-statutory bureaucracy and focus on the things which genuinely contribute to achieving real outcomes for service users. It also encourages those remaining in the public sector to up their game or become independent themselves.

A demonstration of how this can work is the Department for Education’s Social Work Practice pilot programme, which is testing the delivery of social care for children by independent organisations. One of the models I came across recently being tested involves a group of local authority employed social workers who have “spun out” to form their  own independent employee-owned social enterprise. The flexibility and reduction in bureaucracy that operating as a small independent  organisation allows is already proving a great experience for both the Children in Care and the social workers e.g. social workers are able
to spend more time with the children and young people than they were able to from within the local authority; decisions are taken much closer to the children and young people with quicker turnaround times; staff satisfaction levels are high as staff feel empowered with more control over their work; and they have been able to use their office space to create a much more welcoming and comfortable environment for both children and young people and staff compared to the norm which tends to be very impersonal.

The freedom and flexibility with which organisations like these can operate gives them a tremendous capacity to use their collective professional judgement to try new things and react to feedback from service users and citizens. Innovations which work can be shared whilst those which do not work can be contained (and their impact limited); lessons can be universally learned and systemic failures are avoided. In this way public service reform will be driven from the bottom up through the efforts and creativity of the front line staff who deliver the services.

Citizens need to be supported by public sector staff who are willing to involve and support them, who are free to innovate and yet still held to account publicly for the long term outcomes they produce or by citizens directly rather than by central Whitehall diktat. Such staff exist and it does not take many of them to start a movement that can genuinely improve services even in such constrained times. We need to support them as citizens, businesses, voluntary organisations and within the public sector itself.

Public reformers – your country needs you.

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