News and Comment

25th anniversary guest blog series: Challenges for services to the public over the coming five years

Monday 6 October 2014

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OPM’s silver anniversary gives us a chance to reflect.  Where were we – and public services – in 1989? What’s happened in the 25 years since OPM was established which might give pointers for the next five?

As a teacher I was waiting, full of doubt and trepidation, to implement the National Curriculum.  Science alone had 17 Attainment Targets, maths had about seven, English had five, and others had more.  Somebody somewhere was dreaming up SATs for seven year olds about whether objects would float or sink. We were arguing about public services not being properly funded.  Schools were being sounded out about delegated finances for most things and some were piloting the Local Management of Schools. If there were computers in them they were rare, had to be booked out from the cupboard they lived in, and in my then-LEA were BBC Masters because everybody knew you couldn’t trust PCs.  People in the art department talked enthusiastically about Apples and it was clear they were terrific, but they didn’t interface with any other systems so if you got one, it really only talked to itself.  Nobody had a mobile phone, very few had home computing and if they did it was quite an art to learn how to use it.  We were not connected to the then-infant internet.

And nationally? We were ten years into an 18-year Conservative government. Nothing beyond what had always been country-specific had been devolved to any of the UK’s three Celtic nations. Nothing in public services had been denationalised to speak of. Most transport, all of state education, health services, water treatment and disposal, energy production and sale, were run either by national or local state authorities. The move towards denationalisation was starting, but it was very new.  Local government was powerful. Every possible model ran:  two tier counties, metropolitan unitary and royal boroughs, cities and parishes were all alive whether well or ill, and running services for the public. There was, we now know, the same pattern as there is today of things in them being honest or dishonest, well governed or chaotic. Where it was the unit of management, the public sector had the monopoly. What it commissioned, mostly it also provided, and nobody much suggested otherwise, though there were noises off and anomalies were beginning to challenge established paradigms. ‘Surely there are more varied, more flexible ways of delivering from the public purse’, said the anomaly proposers. ‘Of course there are, go away’, said the guardians of the paradigm.

On the national scene there were things we would find familiar now, and some that have changed. Our forces were heavily deployed in Northern Ireland’s turbulence and troubles and we lived with the shock, sadness and concern about what that sometimes brought to the mainland. But the Middle East was largely the Middle East’s ongoing problem and we weren’t there with boots on the ground, though we were in other parts of the world and in peace keeping operations. We were seven years on from the Falklands War. We were four years on from the end of the Miners’ strike, but most mines were still open.  School leavers could go, at 16, into a wide range of industrial and commercial as well as service sector jobs, with or without qualifications. We still built our own trains.  Steel was still made in bulk in places across the UK. Many communities in England were not multi-ethnic, multi-faith or multi-lingual. Where they were, many were long-term and settled mixed communities, with comparatively rare arrivals of new groups bringing new strengths and new needs with them.

Since then? The paradigms have shifted. Yes, public services often feel much as they did to the recipient. Trains run or they don’t. You get a seat on one at an immense cost per ticket, or you don’t. The lights stay on or go out. You wait for medical treatment you may or may not get, however much more sophisticated your treatment is now. You apply, often through convoluted routes, to go to a school; for benefits; to become a foster carer or adoptive parent; for adaptations to your home or other concessions in accordance with your age, physical or intellectual disabilities; for free school meals; for a place at university. Your life is intervened in by social services, the police or other agencies in accordance with an assessment of your needs, your behaviours or both, and services succeed or fail in helping you live a full life.

We all expect services to keep vulnerable children and adults safe and are as scandalised now as we were then if they fail. You pay your council to empty your bins, commission or even run varied local services, grit your roads. We pay PLCs to deliver clean water and reliable and safe sewage systems, power, gas, railways and road maintenance. They inspect our schools for Ofsted, clean our public buildings, care for those who cannot care for themselves. They are often run by those who ran the predecessor public bodies. Whether what they do is cheaper, more efficient, better quality, more assured than the monoliths they replaced continues to be debated.

The simplistic notions EITHER that only the public sector can provide honourably in the public interest, or that ANYBODY BUT the public sector should be allowed, encouraged, contracted or funded, deserve our copious and equal scorn. Given that often the same people are doing the work concerned, I hope we have grown beyond such empty debates, prepared instead to challenge what is both commissioned and provided on the bases of quality, accountability, and how well the citizen –  of any and all ages or social standings – actually fares.

What will the next five years bring?  Our reliance on and the further development of a mixed market in public services, the development of innovations that will eventually do good but may originate in discomfort and disruption, all based on public service values and people determined to do public good, is the future, just  as it is the present. The challenge for a new government, of any stripe, will be that the public is ever more awake: connected, interconnected, prepared to challenge authority on the basis of what those connections say should be happening.

More people are well travelled and educated to a higher level, the economy is massively more diverse and multi-layered, and more people know the meaning of and how to exercise robust and critical choice.  We know that a new government that believes a magic pot of gold lies buried at the end of some rainbow, to be used to create Rolls Royce models of service, will be wrong. Inventiveness and courage will be required, as they were 25 years ago at the start of the technological and post-industrial revolutions the 1990s accelerated and the 2000s have continued. A rush to do yet another policy-rather-than evidence based reorganisation – in health, policing, or any other commissioning or provision – might fulfil a political wish for change, but would not necessarily do much more than cause anxiety, spending money the system does not have, and seeing no improvement for service users.

Politics, by its nature, has a short memory. Those preparing to govern in May would do well to recognise that they may only govern for five years, but they are part of a stream of history, not new minted and context free. This country’s public services are the envy of many in the world, for all their difficulties in making ends meet. They are also fought over ideologically and politically, often expensive, and sometimes their own worst and most cumbersome enemies. An aware, connected population needs to be involved in shaping them, having ceased to be passive and humbly grateful recipients a very long time ago.

Dr Maggie Atkinson is Children’s Commissioner for England

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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.