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  • Writer's pictureEmmet Regan

Mission impossible? Reflections on transforming public services

Emmet Regan argues that public service reform will require working in partnership with public servants, a willingness to take difficult decisions and ruthless prioritisation. A version of this article was first published in the MJ.


As we enter 2024, thoughts are inevitably turning to the upcoming General Election and with it the potential for a clear mandate to reform our public services that are in dire need of direction, funding, and leadership.


The purpose of this article is not to play guessing games as to when a General Election might happen but to provide a framework for an incoming government for the reformation of public services when we know that whoever takes power, the backdrop is incredibly challenging with no easy solutions.


Context


For too long now, there has been a paralysis of direction within our public services with the debate focused only on the next few months or the next financial year. Across the board, we have seen public services failing to return to their pre-pandemic levels or indeed deteriorating significantly. Councils are feeling extraordinary financial pressures. According to the Local Government Association, almost one in five council leaders and chief executives in England think it is very or fairly likely that their chief finance officer will need to issue a Section 114 notice in 2024 due to a lack of funding to keep key services running. Further, they estimate that councils in England face a £4bn funding gap over the next two years just to keep services standing still.


The Institute for Government in its 2023 Performance Tracker, noted ‘the public is experiencing first-hand the consequences of successive governments’ short-term policy making, with decades of under-investment in capital having a serious impact on the productivity of public services. Teachers, nurses, doctors, and social workers work in crumbling and cramped buildings and many services are experiencing a full-blown workforce crisis.’


Back to the future


Indeed, the Institute for Public Policy Research have published Great Government – public service reform in the 2020s. It argues that the next government will inherit one of the most challenging contexts in terms of public services of any new government since the Second World War. Optimists will point to the legacy of New Labour as evidence that recovery in the coming parliament is achievable. However, in many ways the inheritance facing the next government is even more challenging than that in 1997’.


The Labour Party has focused on five missions as their blueprint for government. These broad over-arching ideas provide a high-level framework for what a Labour government could look like yet provide little detail on what those missions mean for public services and public service reform. Given that we are months away from a General Election, there is a real concern as to the level of preparedness that has been developed for a generational challenge.  


Below, I have provided a framework for any incoming government to consider when mapping out their plans for public service reform.


Framework for public service reform


Firstly, providing clarity will be crucial for successful reform, public servants cannot be expected to carry out large-scale reform without clarity on both the direction of travel and the detail of the journey.


Given the scale of the challenge that has been outlined, the incoming government will have to prioritise ruthlessly. It is not possible to do everything all at once. Regardless of the political colouration of the incoming government, without a clear set of priorities, the new government run the risk of trying to do everything and achieving nothing.


Given the last number of years and the low levels of trust within government and politicians, any incoming government are going to have to be upfront with the British public about the scale of the challenge and the need for an honest conversation about what will be required to support some of the most vulnerable in our society.


We have seen where local leaders and local communities are empowered and supported financially then real change is possible. Adopting a devolution by default approach across Whitehall will ensure that the people who know their areas best will be empowered to make decisions for their area. A new government will have to fight hard to push power away, particularly if that new government has been out of power for several years. It will be very easy to promise the devolution of decision making, it is another thing to deliver it.


There is a real opportunity to work with public servants, breaking free of the turmoil of the last few years and turning into a genuine two-way partnership. At the end of 2023, Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council outlined his thesis of power through partnership. He cited the Covid vaccine rollout as evidence of the demonstration that strong partnership between national and local government delivers the results English communities need. This can be a blueprint for genuine dialogue.


As 2024 begins so should the discussion on how we transform our public services and improve performance and outcomes. Without an honest conversation with the public, no incoming government will have a mandate to make difficult decisions and prioritise. 2024 can be the beginning of systemic change, and we must all work to that goal.


For more on Mutual Ventures' work on public services reform click here.

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