Monday 3 March 2014

Giving public services back to the public.

There are some signs of renewed interest in public service reform. ACEVO has been worried that the drive for more citizen and community focused services has been hitting the buffers. Indeed in some cases has simply meant replacing public sector monopoly with private sector oligopoly. 

In a letter to Mr Cameron I have suggested that the implementation of public service reform has too often “emphasised narrow cost savings” rather than “engagement, collaboration and social value”. This was reported on page 4 of the FT today.

I write, "The public sector monopolies that you were so keen to break open have been threatened by new private sector oligopolies.”

The reforms are intended to give financial clout to organisations that were closer to the communities they served. However, “private sector companies have been highly aggressive in their tactics and have cornered the market through their purchasing power. The result is that there exist now in our country large deserts of anti-competitiveness: an oligopoly of large private companies that dominate service delivery contracts and relegate civil society and other smaller providers to the margins.”

Charities that had tried to work with the private sector had often been “set up to fail”, particularly those involved in the work programme, which aims to help the long-term unemployed find jobs. We hope that the MoJ reforms will lead to a bigger role for charities but the signs from the tender process are ominous. 300 page applications with 2 financial models and capital backing are required. Now, clearly this are large sums of public money but we also need a process that doesn't push us to the margins of delivery. When our sector has the real experience of delivering reduced reoffending it will be silly if we end up not involved in these programmes. And the private sector oligopolies have not exactly covered themselves with glory with their delivery of public services so far. 

Several private sector “prime” contractors 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”.

But I hope that the letter I wrote is also a constructive critique. ACEVO still supports the prime minister’s original aims.  The ideas Mr Cameron set out in the Open Public Services white paper “are as relevant and important today as in 2011”. I know from my own discussions with the PM that he believes our sector does have the abilities to deliver a more citizen focused approach. And he does understand that public service reform is not simply about cutting costs but also about a more citizen and consumer approach. 

So what I have suggested is that there is a Whitehall-led review of how to give people more say “across every interstice of our public services, their commissioning, design and their delivery”.

I also propose that we look more carefully at how a citizen and community driven approach could work. So pushing reform from the bottom up by entrenching citizens' rights in legislation. Building on the Rights in the Localism Act we should develop rights to choice, to voice and to challenge. 

What the NHS needs is the “right to challenge that there is in the Localism Act for local council services. It is time patients had the ability not simply to complain but to demand that their loved one is treated elsewhere if the hospital they are in is failing them. After all, the NHS Constitution does state that the “NHS belongs to the people".  

Both the Coalition and the Opposition need to refresh their offerings to the public on the future of public services and citizens' role in them. And that is why the role of our sector is so crucial. Not just in delivery but in voice. Our advocacy, our campaigning roles are as vital in ensuring wrongs are redressed and that services are configured in ways that deliver for communities. 

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