After Covid-19, public services must be powered by people
Updated: Mar 17
Jamie McMahon argues that we must use the Covid-19 crisis to build public services powered by people, and not just return to business as usual.
If there is one silver-lining to the tragedy of the Covid-19 emergency, it is the collective understanding and recognition of the importance of public services.
For so many, the opportunity to show our thanks and appreciation of public servants has been a highlight, culminating each Thursday as we ‘clap for carers’. From NHS and care staff saving lives to council employees cleaning our streets, collecting our bins and ensuring the vulnerable are safe from harm, never have we relied so much on public services.
I believe that surge of support is a ‘snap-back’ from decades of growing disconnect between people and public services. This has not been, I believe, deliberate on the part of policy makers and those who run public services. Once this crisis has passed, we cannot allow this business as usual to return.
The delivery of public services is complicated. It is impossible to make the composition of public services that spend in total over a third of our GDP a year anything but large and complex. However, from NHS structures that give experts headaches, County Halls resistant to change, to frontline delivery commissioned to a multitude of organisations. Public services are too often opaque and directed by higher powers, not ordinary people.
That must change post Covid-19. The rise in passion for and recognition of public services needs to coincide with a concerted effort by government and every council and NHS organisation to consider how public services can be run by, not just for, the people who rely upon them or work in them.
I wrote an article in February – pre Covid-19 – about the need for local places and people to grab the reins to determine their own future. In the context of a post-Brexit settlement and a General Election that hinged on those forgotten Midlands and Northern towns, how do leaders empower local areas and people to come together and drive their own destiny? Add Covid-19 to the policy context and this question feels even more pertinent.
Leading on from this, I think there are two questions that public sectors leaders should be asking themselves when considering how to empower and engage people in public services:
Have we done all we can to embed local peoples’ views? Too often decisions are made behind closed doors where discussions centre on how to ‘manage’ the communication with citizens. Alternative options include hardwiring people into decision-making structures, citizen and staff ownership, and greater stakeholder engagement. There is a spectrum of potential engagement of local people in public services and it is never one size fits all.
Is our strategy underpinned by the social value we add? Too many local authorities and NHS organisations measure the impact of their service only in terms of the output it delivers and how much it costs. Covid-19 has highlighted the power of public services in shaping and improving quality of life, supporting the local economy, and community connectedness. The public is placing greater emphasis on the social value of public services, can we say the same of its leaders?
It about ensuring public services are truly run for and by people. Where money is spent not just on the delivery of public services, but as an investment in the communities they serve.
Some trailblazers have already been experimenting, and succeeding, with different approaches. The Wigan Deal and the Preston Model are examples of councils changing the way they do things. Elsewhere, public service mutuals providing social care, leisure, public health and libraries services have grown and flourished with local people driving the agenda.
As we move out of this crisis, and agendas shift from today and tomorrow to the future, we must seize upon the connection between those of us who rely on public services and those who deliver them. We must not go back to business as usual. We need public services not only for the people, but powered by the people.
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