On public services addressing our modern ills

One of the core functions of our publicly-funded services is to provide a critical backstop for issues that are beyond the ability of our families and communities to support us. At their best, whether provided by public, voluntary or private sectors, these services help maintain and deepen our social fabric, providing essential support for people and communities when they need it the most. Yet as the UN reported in November 2018, “local authorities, especially in England, which perform vital roles in providing a real social safety net have been gutted by a series of government policies. Libraries have closed in record numbers, community and youth centres have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centres have been sold off…” Little wonder, perhaps, that in our recent Populus poll, 41% of people said there should be more taxation to fund public services and 44% of people thought that local councils should have more powers (and it is highest in the youngest age range). There is, it appears, an appetite for change and change at a local level. 

We argue that modern ills – complex challenges such as health inequality and social isolation – need a modern, multi-faceted response. First, a fair funding settlement is crucial. Spending on public services as a proportion of GDP has fallen to 38%, well below the EU average and on par with Estonia. However, turning on the funding taps alone isn’t the answer. Putting more resource into a legacy system already creaking and groaning under the strain of increasing demand and reducing investment in prevention is only going to result in more service failure.

We need this investment to be through new systems and processes that are fit for purpose, which necessitates the design and test of new approaches that are appropriate for the 21st century. In our recent work, for example, we have developed an ‘invest to solve’ model through which to test new ways of using public funding to solve societal challenges, and are testing new approaches to welfare and learning though the design of experiments in UBI and cities of learning. 

We further argue that increased funding needs to be used in ways that effectively tackle these giants – we will need, and see, people acting and thinking innovatively in the public services. Through our recent research we have found that such ‘public entrepreneurs’ are often doing so despite the constraints of working across complex systems and organisations that can crowd out innovative solutions to our social challenges. The public entrepreneur is comfortable engaging local people and harnessing their knowledge through networked and coproduced approaches to problem-solving. 

Ensuring that services are designed with citizens is the opposite of the technocratic approach that Atif described. Indeed, our polling showed that 60% of people think ordinary citizens would offer valuable ideas and solutions to meet challenges. The public entrepreneur recognises this and seeks their input; new systems and ways of working seek to harness this knowledge and in so doing seek to rebalance the relationship between ‘command and control’ approaches to delivering services and new models of management.

Yet only 7% of people think that ordinary citizens are an influential force in modern Britain. In our wider work programme we are also working to test new ways of devolving power to citizens – through greater devolution to cities and regions as well as experimenting with new forms of deliberative democracy, in which people set the agenda and debate the issues that matter to them. 

Our modern public services need new and innovative ways of working to address these modern ills. It is our contention that the Public entrepreneur is crucial in this work, leading innovation, identifying and seizing the opportunity for experimentation, and driving change where appropriate. 

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