This week marked the publication of the Coalition Government’s much awaited White Paper on Open Public Services. In the House of Commons, Oliver Letwin MP, underlined the five principles that underpin the White Paper and the Coalition’s vision for public services:
- Choice – wherever possible we will increase choice
- Decentralisation – power will be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level
- Diversity – public services will be open to a range of providers
- Fair access –we will ensure that there is fair access and fair funding for all
- Accountability –services will be accountable to users and taxpayers.
New thinking on public services offers reform but not transformation
To stand any chance of long-term success the Big Society has to draw on voluntary bodies that are professional in all but name. Without that the concept will be like a house built on sand
One criticism might be the complete absence of the concept of value for money in the paper. The coalition government could argue that it would have embarked on its reform programme regardless of the fiscal situation but the practical task of reform for public service managers (which in the end is what matters) is all about value for money – whether to amend the services, reduce costs, invest this year to save in years to come, and so on.
The government is right that public services need reform, but it has no analysis of the mix of public services that the country needs in the decades ahead. Its white paper is too narrowly focused on the role of market forces, neglecting other proven means of raising standards.
Employee ownership offers great potential for professionals to transform frontline services. However, in many cases the most appropriate provider will be a large corporation with a good brand, strong balance sheets to enable it to finance new investment, and working capital for PbR. The skills to provide strong quality-control and staff development are also vital.
Wholesale alteration in the delivery of public services might take three terms of government, according to a minister
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History too provides good reason to be cautious with these proposed policy changes. When in the 1980s, Prime Minister Thatcher reversed the post-war Labour government’s nationalizations, she was dealing with very large, quasi monopolies, with pricing post privatization controlled by regulatory organizations. The stock market soon applied pressure on privatized businesses for acceptable financial return on investment, with downsizing, lean and offshoring becoming common but it probably took the best part of a generation for customer service to rise to the top of performance challenges in organizations like British Gas and British Telephone etc. Fundamentally, these privatized businesses were very large organizations that could potentially benefit from the economic advantage of scale. On the other hand, specialist micro-businesses that might emerge out of the Public Services Reform will probably seriously struggle for competitive advantage. Neoliberals would argue that these micro businesses would benefit from being non-unionized attracting the best resources available in the wider market.
For sure, the Coalition Goverment will need help with: (a) policy evaluation and drafting, (b) strategy formulation, and most importantly, (c) delivery of the transformation. Already hard-pressed, down-sized and demoralized, public servants will struggle in this new language. In all probability, the Government will turn to consultants for strategy formulation and possibly policy analysis. However, I would strongly encourage the Government to turn first to Professional Interims for delivery of transformation for the four reasons cited earlier under (12).
By deploying Professional Interims early, I would argue that the Government will:
- Reduce the composite risk of Public Services Transformation
- Validate proposed reforms with independent, non-aligned, business hardened challenge on the important practical decisions, like governance, organization, strategy, pricing regulation, products/services & business mix, quality assurance, customer service, financial control, professionalism etc.
To remind the reader, a Professional Interim Executive is a high impact external resource, usually operating at or near board level on a short-term basis, who utilises extensive proven experience to solve complex problems or deliver solutions to business critical issues fast. Professional Interims diagnose, design, deliver, embed the learning, and then disengage.