Monday 10 February 2014

Citizens' Rights in public services

Later today I will be at the Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian building along the canal. Ed Miliband MP will be making his first speech as Leader of the Opposition on public service reform. Having spoken strongly on the need for better rights for consumers and tackling unaccountable monopoly behaviour in the private sector, he needed to address just those issues in public services. And judging by the leaks of the speech it will be a good start. I wish him well.

From my many conversations with him when he was Third Sector Minister, I know he thinks deeply about how to expand the role of our sector in public service provision. So I have been disappointed so far that he has not tackled this issue.

In advance I wrote to Ed to argue for a more radical agenda, about entrenching citizen rights in legislation.

I wrote;

Dear Ed,

When you served as the country’s first Minister for the Third Sector, I enjoyed working with you on the very first third sector delivery plan. Great strides were made, but it is now time to go much further if our citizens are to have the public services they deserve.

You will be setting out Labour’s initial ideas on how to take public service reform further at the Hugo Young Lecture on Monday. As you know, I have always been a huge supporter of giving citizens real choice and voice in our public service in order to provide the services our citizens need.

Over the course of this parliament, the Government has made obeisances to this vision. It has extended the rights to challenge and acquire assets and these are strongly supported in our sector. We also welcomed the cross-party support for Chris White MP’s Social Value Act.  Bringing such community and citizen action into our public services should mean that power flows from those at the centre to the users of public services. It should mean that people have a say on the decisions – in health, employment or whenever they are at their most vulnerable – that affect their lives.

However, despite these developments, it will not surprise you to learn that the ambition of the Government’s vision on public service reform has been only partially realised in its delivery. I am writing to you today to urge you to learn from these mistakes as you put together your plan for public services reform.

Crucially, the Government has made two significant errors.

The first concerns monopoly. Public sector monopolies on key services were never the way to empower citizens. However, the breaking open of these monopolies has been managed poorly. Consider the example of the restructured health commissioning system. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 promised to create a locally-led commissioning structure, led by clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) with much closer connections to their communities.

Private sector companies have in fact been highly aggressive in their tactics and have cornered the market with their purchasing power.  Government policies have aided and abetted these practices. There is an over-reliance on competitive tendering which has favoured the large-scale private sector at the expense of more citizen-focused organisations. While small and local organisations continue to struggle to get a hearing from CCGs in many cases, recent figures even showed that CCGs have spent over £5 million on legal fees alone to avoid litigation from private providers.

To overcome this imbalance, charities and social enterprises have tried valiantly to work with the private sector. However this has proved extremely challenging at times. In the Work Programme, for example, several private-sector prime providers have been guilty of poor treatment of civil society subcontractors, including failing to refer sufficient clients, and refusing to lessen the degree of financial risk to which subcontractors are exposed. This has seen many community organisations who enter into such agreements being ‘set up to fail.’ It has reduced the diversity and expertise of the provider market as well-regarded, skilled, specialised civil society organisations such as St Mungo’s have been forced to pull out of delivery on grounds of cost, to the immense detriment of those who would benefit from their services.

The result is that there exist now in our country large deserts of disempowerment where large, private companies  dominate service delivery contracts and relegate community-focused providers to the margins. A number of high-profile scandals – including recent allegations of significant overcharging by two major companies - reflect the pitfalls of giving so much responsibility to a handful of private organisations. It reflects the folly of replacing public sector monopolies with private sector oligopolies.

Secondly there is the question of citizens’ rights. Citizens’ rights are both a key component of good public services and a solution to the current problem.

The Government’s Localism Act 2012 gave citizens new rights, such as the Right to Challenge, which provide communities with new opportunities to get involved with their local services. However, these rights and the rhetoric behind them have suffered from a lack of support and follow-through. As the problems with the Government’s public services plans have accumulated, their appetite for serious public service reform appears to have waned.

We need a renewed focus on more developed citizens’ rights in our public services. Paying lip-service to citizens’ rights is not enough. Public services will only empower citizens, build their capabilities and give people control and agency over their lives, if they have a real say in the design and direction of the services they use.

I have been impressed by your rhetoric on citizens’ rights but I want you to go further. I believe that the next Government needs to commission a full review across every area of our public services that should seek outline the scope of citizens’ rights across every interstice. From health to welfare, from employment to justice, and their commissioning, design and delivery.
I suggest that this review give serious weight to establishing two basic rights for citizens and communities.

The first is a ‘right to voice’ for members of the public. ACEVO previously proposed this in our official response to the Open Public Services white paper. This would formalise the principle that citizens and communities should by default have a say in the design and direction of public services through collaborative and community-based commissioning procedures.
The second is a ‘right to choice.’ This right would stress the importance of meaningful choice between different approaches to service delivery - for example, by enabling health care recipients to choose home- or community-based forms of treatment and support wherever possible. These sensitive decisions are best made by individuals and their families, not by bureaucrats.

These rights should made law. They should be enshrined in appropriate legislation, and in statements of practice such as the NHS constitution, which should outline mechanisms for enforcement and redress. I propose that the Crown Representative for the Voluntary Sector be given a clear responsibility for holding government to account for the implementation and delivery of these rights. This would also help ensure that these are developed with citizens in mind, alongside citizen-focused community service providers that deliver genuinely different alternatives for users to choose from.

I believe that robust national leadership is essential if we are to move towards a new, empowering model for our public services. The implementation of public service reform has too often emphasised narrow cost savings rather than the engagement, collaboration and social value that come with truly intelligent commissioning processes. This worked against collaborative, community and citizen-focussed organisations. It has too often worked for large private and public sector interests, against civil society and citizens.

Establishing and promulgating proper rights to choice and voice in our public services will help break the oligopolies accruing around our public services. It will give citizens a real stake and say in the services that matter to them. I hope that you agree and that you will do what is required to realise this important vision.

Yours sincerely,
Sir Stephen Bubb

So tonight I'm looking forward to a renewed commitment from Ed, to citizens and communities and their public services, and to how our sector can deliver exactly that. Strange parallels with David Cameron's Hugo Young lecture a few years back - when he was Leader of the Opposition - on the Big Society. We spoke privately beforehand about ACEVO's work in our 'Replacing the State' project, and he was taken by our ideas. Will be interesting to see how he responds to this evening's speech.

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