England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Update on Open Public Services 2012


This post is based on an LGiU member briefing by Mark Upton. 

The Coalition Government has published its first progress report on its reforms to public services (“Opening Public Services 2012” (PDF document)) since last July’s Open Public Services White Paper (PDF document).

The key developments are:

–        An independent review to look at how choice can be extended to make sure that everyone has access to the information and support they need to make a choice and that if they want to complain, they know how to go about getting redress.

–        A proposal, including draft legislative clauses, to enshrine in law the right to choice. This would clarify and extend existing rights and provide others for choice in different public services as part of a series of choice frameworks.

–        Consulting on making it easier to set up neighbourhood councils so that people can come together and have a say in how services are designed, prioritised and delivered in their local community.

Up to now the Open Public Services agenda has not been driving any reform to public services. Last July’s White Paper primarily reiterated many previously announced departmental reforms and floated a few stretchy ideas without any firm legislative or delivery commitments. That’s why when the White Paper was published it was widely considered as a damp squid. And it since appears to have lost its way.

The White Paper had committed the Government to set out its implementation plans following the listening exercise last September.

Instead, we merely got a series of slides published on the Cabinet Office website setting out the feedback from the listening exercise without a Government response to the fundamental policy issues raised (see below). This was meant to have been followed up in November by the Cabinet Office setting out how individual departments were taking forward the ideas in the White Paper over the rest of the Parliament including proposals for legislation. Four months later what we have, instead, is a hastily put together document comprising a series of tables providing little more detail than the White Paper and an executive summary signed by Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander which, despite the media spin, contains few new ideas, with even those around choice and redress having been were outlined in the White Paper, with little progress made since.

As with the original white paper the language in this update is unclear throughout, consequently, many including the Prime Minister himself may have read too much into what it promises. In an alarmingly honest declaration of his government’s ideological agenda, the Prime Minister assured us that “brick by brick, edifice by edifice, we are slowly dismantling the big-state”.  He promises that “if as an outpatient you are unfairly denied the choice of appointment, you will be able to have that decision overruled” which is not so clear cut in the White Paper and the legislative proposals. As consequence he might end up disappointing the public as Tony Blair did over school choice (when all was on offer was the ability express a school preference) and, the right of his party as regardless of whether services are provided in-house, by external partners, devolved to parishes or through personal budgets, it is still the state providing services and state expenditure.

Choice and redress

The centre-piece of this new paper are the proposals for statutory choice frameworks and champions. These featured in last July’s White Paper with scant further details provided; revealing that little substantive progress has been made since.

There have been public service champions before of course both within and independent to Whitehall. David Walker in the Guardian said there “seems little logic in appointing a ‘champion’ for choice unless that knight picks up a lance in favour of more spending, more provision”. The point of being a champion, David Walker explains, is to extend and improve services. That “urging people to ask for more, to demand redress, to insist on their rights (which may even be legislated for) sits uneasily alongside austerity and cuts that have barely begun to bite”.

That misses the point that rightly or wrongly the Conservatives at least believe that notwithstanding the cuts in the last Comprehensive Spending Review, the public sector is still inefficient and that in effect it is getting the public to do their job for them, in applying pressure on individual services to ensure that funding is maximised on the frontline services and that each and every pound spent counts. Though, David Walker might be right in implying that the appointment of external champions may come back to ‘bite the hand that feeds’.

The Institute for Government has said that creating a ‘right to choose’ may provide a valuable signal to the public sector that the Government is committed to increasing individuals’ power to choose the public service provider they want. But they warn that “it is likely to prove unworkable in practice. To make the right to choose legally enforceable, government would need to specify precisely the degree and type of choice that should be provided in each service area”.

That is a fair comment, but it is not a surmountable problem and, it presupposes that the Government will seek and, indeed be allowed by Parliament, to go forward on a broad legislative front almost across all public services primarily through secondary legislation. This is not what is being proposed.  Rather it would seem that, initially at least, they are proposing to focus on just five areas. However, these areas are already subject to existing rights to choice and developed redress measures. So it is unclear at this stage what benefit this proposed new legislation would bring. It is also proposed that other statutory duties will take precedent which, would mean for local authorities at least that offering choice would be subject to it representing best value. While this may have been the Government’s intention and on face value is seems sensible, it might disappoint others.

Decentralisation and localism

The update paper shifts into gear the decentralisation agenda, though perhaps not in the direction that local authorities might have expected or wanting.

In a warning shot, David Cameron wrote in his Daily Telegraph article that “some local authorities have been guilty of the same kind of top-down bureaucracy that has been the Achilles’ heel of central government”. As a consequence, the neighbourhood schemes which the paper proposes will “address the challenge of how a Neighbourhood Council can become more involved in local service delivery where there may be resistance from principal authorities”.  If that doesn’t work, the Government is threatening further legislation as early as 2013/13 Parliamentary session.

In contrast, Greg Clark’s long promised decentralisation paper promised last summer, was not mentioned at all in both the White Paper and, this update paper and appears to have been consigned to history, undelivered and overtaken by events; although admittedly by one from Greg Clark himself on cities. But the cities agenda is safe territory for Cabinet Ministers who have and see little interest in vesting further power in local government when they are moving in the opposite direction.

The town hall localists might have spotted that Ministers appear to be considering the idea of ‘democratic decentralisation’ of commissioning power in areas that include skills, natural environment support, public transport support and services for families with multiple needs. Whether this will be a genuine transfer of power or an attempt by Central Government to ‘outsource’ problems with a much reduced budget we shall see; though successive Governments have form. If the Government follows the route taken by the Troubled Families Unit then local government will be held by a short leash at the end of a payment by results agreement. Whatever, it may prove to be it doesn’t appear to be a priority for Central Government as to date this proposal “has not yet started”. Another, action yet to be started is the proposal for “a shared vision about the opportunities for stronger local government created by the open public services agenda”.

Unresolved Policy issues

There are a number of issues raised during the Government’s own listening exercise and acknowledged by them at the time that have not been addressed and acknowledged by the paper, these include:

–        That the focus should be on the quality of service and that choice should only be offered in areas where it would genuinely lead to improved services and, that the cost implications of offering choice should be carefully considered prior to implementation;

–        The call for “robust and clearly communicated mechanisms” to hold external providers to account whom, the feedback said had not made the same commitments to transparency as parts of the public sector and, for example are not bound by freedom of information or the public sector equalities duty.

–        That the drive to ensure diversity of providers both nationally and locally does not lead to less service integration and poorer service levels;

–        The broad support for the introduction of minimum standards in terms of quality, safeguarding and minimising the impact of a ‘post code lottery’;

–        The dangers that Neighbourhood Councils might not be fully accessible and representative of the community and therefore could be open to domination from particular interest groups;

–        That in opening up commissioning it is essential from the outset to think about how any additional processes or regulatory considerations for local authorities could be minimised; and,

–        That democratic accountability is critical and that locally elected members should play an important role in Open Public Services.

All these issues it would seem to have been ignored; that might be because to address them might pull the agenda in alternative directions or it might be simply that there isn’t the intellectual drive within the Cabinet Office to resolve these indivertible contradictions in the policy or is just a symptom of the Coalition Government’s ‘change needs to be rapid’ mantra. This may or may not cause problems down the line, though, probably not to the same extent as the recent Health and Social Care Act.

Will Open Public Services succeed?

Ultimately Open Public Services’ impact on truly transforming public services and delivering public policy outcomes could be inherently limited as its focus is on structures, with no consideration of culture and people and the key social, economic, environmental and demographic  challenges facing public services.

Success on the Government’s own terms relies on well informed, motivated ‘consumer citizens’ who have the time to make an informed choice of service, or to sit on neighbourhood councils, and elect representatives to make decisions. It also requires public servants to be enlightened and expert commissioners, comfortable with relinquishing their control of services and treating voluntary and private sector providers in an equal manner. As Anna Coote of the New Economics Foundation pointed out there is nothing to encourage or support the development of co-production, which provides equal and reciprocal partnerships between service ‘providers’ and ‘users’ for defining needs and designing and delivering services. And, where is the behaviour economics being promoted a few yards away from the Open Public Services team in the Cabinet Office?

The Government has instead conflated all these structures and mechanisms such as choice, mutuals and neighbourhood councils, with reform. There is a tendency to confuse structure with purpose and to assume that a new structure or ownership model in itself will be the necessary change. To do so is looking at the wrong end of the telescope.  Indeed, communities may challenge a local authority on services using the powers in the Localism Act but the result may be a contract awarded to a commercial provider. Not every community would welcome this outcome. And we have mechanisms which are likely to lead to swapping one monopoly provider for another.

As John Tizard, Senior Associate at LGiU has said public authorisation, accountability, outcomes, local preferences, political choice, social and public value and value for money are what matters ahead of structures. Those things are resolved through the conversation with local communities, working out relationships between individuals, communities and the state and the commissioning triangle balancing between needs, priorities and resources. It is only when you resolve those issues that you then assess what models are right where they are relevant.

The issues Whitehall policymakers argue are important for reforming public services do not resonate with the general public, who also have some legitimate concerns about alternative service provision, which Whitehall appears to wish to ignore. This disconnect between the public and the policy makers is because the public service reform agenda, for both this and the previous Government, has been dominated by the “how” and “whom” issues. The “what” issues – service design, priorities, outcomes and the perspective of users seem to come as an afterthought.

It would also be a sounder basis to tackle some fundamentals such as the ageing population, the preventative agenda and other social, economic, environmental and demographical challenges facing public services which the Open Public Services agenda doesn’t address and will, therefore fail to deliver real and meaningful change.

For more information about LGiU membership and briefings please see our website or contact chris.naylor@lgiu.org.