News and Comment

25th anniversary guest blog series: The future of public services

Wednesday 15 October 2014


If I am lucky, I will be 90 years old in 25 years’ time. It concentrates the mind to think about future public services in that context. I will be one of the (by then) declining baby-boomer bulge who have benefitted so much from the post war commitment to reforming and improving public services in the last 65 years. As a cohort, we influenced and shaped public services so we have much to be proud of, but also much to answer for. So have we encouraged dependency? Have we demanded unaffordably high standards? Have we got it all wrong? No, of course not. We have seen huge measurable improvements in public services over that time.

Public services are only as good as the people who choose to work in them. The big challenge is to attract the brightest and the best to bring their good ideas and skills, their strong values and boundless energy and enthusiasm to the changing patterns of need we can now predict. We have a good sense of the shape of our population over the next 25 years. We can anticipate many more older people, more diversity in our cities and towns, advances in technology and useful scientific discoveries to give us different options about models of service. It will be a world in which knowledge is more widely shared. People who are better informed will demand to be in control of their ordinary lives, so public services will have to offer even more flexibility to meet individual and community needs.

Thinking back over my 40 years in public service, there has never been a time when supply and demand have been in balance. It has always been a challenge to argue for sufficient resources and to demonstrate ever better quality, and efficient use of tax payers’ money. Listening to colleagues struggling to balance the books now, I have real sympathy for their frustration and anger. But the next 25 years will require more resilience, innovation and determination to work across the public, private and not for profit sectors if we are to make the very best use of available resources. History tells us that costs always rise in real terms in labour-intensive markets.

My 5 years as CEO of SCIE gave me a terrific insight in to the potential of searching for, and sharing, knowledge and good practice. Much of what we know works well is not rocket science. But there is too often resistance to new market entrants, to new ideas and to new ways of working. Sometimes this is because of strongly held beliefs that a particular town or neighbourhood or community is truly unique and ideas from elsewhere are doomed to fail.  Sometimes there is genuine lack of knowledge and opportunity to learn from research about innovations and successes from other places. Sometimes people are simply too stuck in their ways or too tired to try new ways of working. Without good local leadership, and with ready and willing followership, nothing changes. I am fortunate to be working with 2 organisations in the public sector who are both preparing for the future with great energy, enthusiasm and courage. Look Ahead Care and Support has completely transformed its business model to adapt to the changing needs of customers and commissioners and is continuing to grow into new markets. The Institute of Education has taken the initiative and sought out a potential partner for merger to ensure continued success in higher education at a time of great turbulence for the sector.  Both of these outstanding organisations are currently high performing businesses who understand that it is essential to keep looking ahead and taking positive steps to change and improve.

I am optimistic about the future for public services. It is right to criticise and despair when we hear about public service failure, but we should be more confident about celebrating success. Public service will continue to be heavily regulated and scrutinized so there will be no hiding place. I expect to see flourishing examples of good practice that meet my needs, my grandchildren’s needs and my neighbour’s needs. I expect those services to make best use of our individual strengths, skills and abilities and to be a genuine collaboration.  Is that too much to ask?

Julie Jones CBE is Board Member and Chair of the Customer Services Committee at Look Ahead Care and Support and Council member and Council vice chair at Institute of Education 


About the series

OPM is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and as a public interest organisation, we’ve always contributed to the debate about the future of public services.

With this and the next general election in mind, we’ve asked a number of senior thinkers to give their views on the challenges and opportunities facing public services and society in the near future.

This is one of a series of guest blogs, which we’ll be adding to in the coming weeks and months. To read previous posts in the series, go to our news and comment page.