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Public Services face the greatest uncertainty yet – but the show must go on

Writing for Public Sector Focus, MV Director Andrew Laird explores the impact central government instability has on services and what can be done about it.

Public services are facing uncertainty… “So what’s new?” I hear you say.

It’s true that the perfect storm of reducing or frozen budgets and increasing demand and expectations has been battering public services for years. Layer onto this the drive for devolution and health and social care integration and the challenge facing public service leaders increases. Add the disruption of Brexit and the uncertainty of when there might be another general election and you’d wonder how the world of public services continues to turn.

But as we all know – the show must go on – and it does thanks to the dedication of the professionals who deliver front line public services. But these leaders and staff groups are coming under ever increasing pressure and many are reaching breaking point. Services simply can’t continue as usual. If they do the result will not be just reducing service quality but a potential exodus of staff who finally will have had enough.

The instability of central government is a concern for everyone involved in public services. Firstly, the Brexit negotiations will undoubtedly overshadow domestic policy and public service reform for the foreseeable future. Secondly, in a hung parliament, even the most uncontroversial legislation will require careful and time-consuming lobbying and management. There is unavoidable uncertainty around the future of the Conservative Party on which each Minister and MP will want to have their say. All of this will make quick progress on public service reform difficult.

So that’s enough about the challenges – what are the potential solutions?

One approach, which the government is wisely pursuing, is to devolve power and responsibility to local areas. So far, devolution deals have been struck in nine places including the seven areas that now have elected mayors (including London). Until quite recently there was a general rule that substantial devolved power had to be accompanied by a commitment to a directly elected mayor. Cornwall has been the exception to the rule in achieving a significant devolution deal without a commitment to an elected mayor – but Cornwall has always been quite self-sufficient with coterminous boundaries for most major public services.

There are good practical reasons why a single mayor is best suited to urban areas as we are seeing with Andy Street in the West Midlands and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. County councils, particularly rural counties, who have begun the process of exploring a devolution deal have been very uncomfortable about the idea of a single elected mayor. So it’s very positive that alongside the ambition to have more elected mayors for urban areas, the government has dropped the elected mayor requirement for rural counties seeking increased devolved power.

The challenge now will be whether groups of county councils can demonstrate that they can handle the administrative and political challenges that devolution brings without a single, democratically elected figurehead. I think they can and some are already demonstrating that. Some neighbouring counties already have a solid history of working together. Groupings like “Greater Lincolnshire” and the “Heart of the South West” (which includes Devon, Somerset, Plymouth and Torbay) already share a Local Enterprise Partnership and collaborate with each other on a regular basis.

Of course achieving a formal devolution deal isn’t the be all and end all – Devon and Somerset are showing that you don’t need a formal devolution deal to work together on local public service reform.

So what should these local areas focus on? Many are rightly prioritising the development of their own local public service market place. Markets can take all shapes and size and I think it’s fair to say that there is a consensus forming that “untrammelled” free markets are not an appropriate model for public services. Until relatively recently, you would have been forgiven for assuming that the debate on the role the market should play in public services had been largely settled in favour of the principles of choice and competition – albeit within some form of framework. All the major political parties accepted (to varying degrees) that choice for consumers and a mix of public and independent providers were good things. The debate had moved onto exactly what shape the various markets should take. For example, there were interesting discussions developing around how the public and private sectors could work better together in health and social care. This orthodoxy is being challenged now with both of the main political parties moving to the left of their previous positions in respect of free markets.

In my view, a market approach can still be a huge force for good within the right constructive framework. Local areas face a huge range of truly “wicked” challenges such as identifying the right form of dementia care and how to tackle issues like NEET as early in a young person’s life as possible. Commissioners should be working with local and national providers (public and independent) to co-produce solutions to this problems and thus shape future services. There are mechanisms available that allow this type of innovative working as opposed to a traditional and often detached procurement process.

So yes public services are facing uncertainty – but there are a whole range of opportunities for both commissioners and providers to respond to the challenge and put services on a more sustainable footing for the future.

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