2022: Looking ahead with questions rather than predictions
Andrew Laird reflects on the uncertainties facing public services and asks three key questions that will shape the year ahead.
It’s tradition at this time of year for the MV team to get together, look back at the year that’s gone and make predictions for public services in the year ahead.
This time, the first thing we all agreed was that predicting anything in the current climate is a mug’s game!
Instead, we found ourselves reflecting on the uncertainty that has become a hallmark of recent years and discussing some the big questions facing the UK as a whole: how long will the Covid tail be? What consequences will any new variants have? And how will the economy fair?
Of course, these questions will have a profound impact on public services but, to a large extent, they are unknowable.
So with the help of my MV colleagues, I have chosen three questions for which answers are more readily influenced by policy, funding decisions and our actions as public service organisations. In large part, how we response to them will shape what happens to public services in the year ahead.
Question 1: Will public service leadership and workforce continue to hold up?
Public service staff and their leaders are exhausted after a relentless 22 months of increased workload and the strains of covering for ill colleagues or staffing vacancies. This equally applies across the public sector and the range of social enterprises and independent providers that deliver essential services.
Adult social care is probably the most vivid example. The most acute problem facing providers is that they are struggling to compete in the labour market (Amazon and Costa both pay more). Recruitment and retention is a huge problem. Yes, the government have pledged more money for the sector – but will it make enough of a difference?
More widely across public services, there also seems to be a trend of public sector leaders retiring or stepping back, especially in local authorities. Are there enough suitably experienced and talented people to take over? Succession planning should be among the issues at the top of the list for Council Cabinets and Executive Teams.
Question 2: What practices and behaviours will be retained from the pandemic, and what will go back to the way it was?
A ‘war time’ response to the pandemic meant old rules and siloes were set aside. This resulted some new ways of doing business in the public sector, for example around data sharing and procurement practices. Public servants were given permission to circumvent normal rules in favour of openness and speed, and encouraged to work with partners to facilitate this.
Many of these temporary measures will now be rolled back. The risk here is that, as they are reversed, we will lose much of the excellent collaboration, sharing and co-production we saw over the last two years. Forthcoming healthcare reforms are set to play their part in locking-in some of those behaviours in the NHS but we are seeing many organisations already reverting to the pre-pandemic norm.
This challenge also extends to central government. Kate Bingham, the former chair of the Vaccine Task Force, recently argued that ‘the normal machinery of government is dominated by process, rather than outcome, causing delay and inertia’, and Whitehall is held back by ‘a culture of groupthink and risk aversion’. There is now a strong case that the return to ‘peace time’ should retain some of the behaviours shown during the crisis that allowed a more nimble response to events. The Institute for Government have provided a thoughtful response to this, which argues that a clear mission and accountable leadership must now be the central guiding force.
Question 3: Where will the innovation and new ideas come from?
Public services have been in crisis mode for nearly two years. For sure, some of the best innovation is born out of crisis - but how will this be maintained and what support will there be for systems and organisations to grow and develop, and respond to a rapidly changing landscape?
The large-scale shift to digital was a key feature of the pandemic. It was an absolutely necessity and, as it turns out, was not as scary or as disruptive as many thought it would be. Organisations from GP surgeries to libraries had to adapt at break-neck speed or risk becoming obsolete. Most did react well and took their service users with them. This trend will surely continue.
Innovation also needs support from central government. The long-awaited Social Care White paper earmarks a £30m pot for ‘innovative models of care’. This offers of chance for councils to be brave and try new things, for example to explore a locally-based social enterprise model like PossAbilities CIC or Leading Lives in Suffolk.
Similarly, a lot is riding on the delayed Levelling Up White Paper, now due after Christmas. But if this delay means we get a white paper that has broad support then it's worth the wait. A radical programme of devolving power and responsibility to communities would be very welcome.
These are all profound questions – but it is within our collective means to come up with the right answers. It is up to Government to show the lead, then it is all of our responsibilities to see it through.
On behalf of the Mutual Ventures team I want to wish all our readers, friends, clients and partners a safe and peaceful Christmas and happy New Year. We look forward to seeing you in 2022!