England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance, Personal and organisational development

Will the government put its money where its localist mouth is?


This article was originally published by Total Politics http://bit.ly/oOo8FA.

The long awaited launch of the government’s public services white paper  – delayed since the start of the year – took place yesterday.

The paper proposes a radical opening up of public services to private and third sector providers. Although it is understood that the language of the paper has been watered down from its original conception, it still represents a fundamental break with the past by moving away from any automatic presumption that the state will deliver public services.

David Cameron said:

It’s about ending the old big government, top down way of running public services?…?releasing the grip of state control and putting power into people’s hands. The old dogma that Whitehall knows best – it’s gone. There will be more freedom, more choice and more local control.

Specific proposals include the commissioning of hyperlocal services by new community councils, and increased use of personalised budgets and payment by results to encourage a more diverse market in service provision.

The white paper represents a statement of intent for the government’s big society approach across Whitehall. For local government much of this will look familiar. The decentralisation and localism bill is already introducing a community right to challenge that aims to open up councils services to more diverse providers.

Around the country councils of all political persuasions have been looking at different ways of delivering services, but while some are leading the way with innovative new approaches, others are struggling to look forward at the same time as managing huge budget cuts in year. This raises questions about how prepared the public sector is for this approach.  Recent LGiU research showed that more than nine out of ten councils had not conducted assessments of the risk and opportunities presented by the community right to challenge.

Local government’s experience also raises two more fundamental questions about the government’s reform agenda. Firstly, how does the open public services approach sit alongside community budgeting: the pooling of different Whitehall funding streams into a single local bank account. At present DCLG is the only government department actively pushing out this approach. This needs to become standard practice across Whitehall and the resulting pooled budgets used to support the open services approach. Without this there is a real danger that a more diverse public service supply side will be fragmentary and ineffective. The key to delivering the choice and local control the Prime Minister wants is to break the budgetary stranglehold of the big Whitehall departments (a point made clearly in the DCLG structural reform plan but yet to be delivered on).

Secondly, there are questions about accountability. Local government services are held to account through the electoral mandate of local politicians. In other areas of public service reform: the work programme, GP commissioning, Local Enterprise Partnerships for example, this link does not exist. The simplicity and power of this democratic connection should not be lost. The white paper looks to introduce new forms of  accountability through greater citizen involvement in the design and delivery of services and through the exercise of ‘consumer’ choice, but these must remain complementary to, not in competition  with the exercise of local democracy.

Giving power to citizens and communities to shape the public services they use is a laudable aim. This white paper is a clear statement of intent, but individual departments have yet to formulate their plans for implementing its philosophy. It is only when they do so that we will see whether the government really puts its money where its localist mouth is.

Jonathan Carr-West is a director at the Local Government Information Unit. Follow him on Twitter @joncarrwest