On the need for public entrepreneurs to redesign public services

The future of our public services and the role they play in a society where citizens, businesses and governments work together to address the challenges facing society is a crucial debate, perhaps never more so. It is clear that a policy of more of the same is not a sustainable option: our current systems and services were largely designed in, and for, a world that no longer exists. At the same time, a decade of austerity and longer-term technological and social trends are not only driving the need for innovation within public services but also making it more difficult to achieve. How might we liberate entrepreneurialism in public services In order to help tackle the very real  issues that impact people’s everyday lives?

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.

This is the case in terms of direct service provision but it’s also the case in less obvious ways. John Harris, talking at our recent event, described the neglect of the public realm – refuse collection, parks and gardens, estate maintenance – as ambient austerity. This has a huge psychological impact on people and signals that the neighbourhood, and by extension those living in it, is not valued. Areas that look neglected feel neglected and unsafe, which compounds the sense of social isolation that people might experience, or increases the intolerance to others. We crave physical and emotional security; to have it signalled as unimportant underpins many of our deepest social challenges, from our ability to learn at school, achieve at work, engage in our community. Our communities need to be places that people want to live in, that offer opportunities to work and learn, that offer safe communal spaces to mix and play.   

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. 

Such complex challenges 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 issues – we will need, and see, people acting and thinking innovatively in the public services. Through 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.

Our work seeks to systematically identify and share practice that is demonstrating a new kind of civic entrepreneurialism. We intend, for example, to spot the barriers to an entrepreneurial culture in public sector organisations, develop an action-based learning curriculum based on the core skillset and mindset of the public – and social – entrepreneurs, and capture practice in a toolkit of methods and approaches. We are starting to develop a movement for entrepreneurialism across public services. 

This isn’t just think-tank aspiration. Our survey also 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.

The public entrepreneur is comfortable engaging local people and harnessing their knowledge through networked and coproduced approaches to problem solving. 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 issues as they manifest in modern society. 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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