Public Service Reform

john_lehal-266x400

Public Service Reform – John Lehal, Managing Director Insight Public Affairs

With its core principles of choice and control, decentralisation, diversity, fairness and accountability, the Open Public Service White Paper was significant in setting out the Coalition’s vision for public sector reform.  Published in July 2012, and with less than two years to the next General Election, the Government’s attention has turned to the delivery of this vision, and tackling the barriers that exist to implementation.

The Public Administration Select Committee report Change in Government the agenda for leadership, whilst focussed on the machinery of Government, also set out a critique of the delivery of the commitments set out in the Open Public Services White Paper, particularly the absence of “granular practicality” required to assist the private sector in the provision of public services.  The Committee found that whilst the White Paper was one of the relatively more substantive documents fleshing out the Coalition’s plans for public sector modernisation, it did reflect a lack of long-term planning and strategic thinking in government.

The quality of commissioning by the civil service is also proving to be a particular challenge, and contributes to resistance of alternative providers having an opportunity to challenge established providers.  The quality of commercial skills, business acumen and project management skills in the civil service are frequently cited.  Some positive steps are being taken and the Major Projects Authority has launched a new “Major Projects Leadership Academy”.

Commissioning is too often a race to the bottom, with price the key factor, regardless of outcomes, providers, and social value.  Although Payment by results is a welcome development, it has led to a lack of diversity of providers, excluding many charities and SMEs from public service contracts, given the risk associated and implications on cash-flow.

There are valid concerns about certain providers becoming ‘entrenched’ or ‘too big to fail’ with all the associated moral hazard that such a scenario creates.  Southern Cross (social care) and National Express (East Coast Mainline) have required unanticipated government intervention, and arguably a loss of confidence in the guarantee of provision of public service by major companies.

To explore public attitudes on public sector modernisation, Insight Public Affairs commissioned exclusive research ahead of the first anniversary in July of the Government’s publication of its Open Public Services White Paper. Polling conducted by Populus provided a range of insights into the electorate’s views on public sector modernisation.  The public are cautious about outsourcing services in the security and policing fields in particular, perhaps reflecting the potential volatility of these sectors.  The polling exercise also allowed Insight to gauge the potential impact of corporate messaging and communications campaigns. It found evidence of significant public support for outsourcing when a clear social benefit is being communicated. It is therefore imperative for commissioners as well as providers to understand that they must provide a clear rationale for every bid they submit for Government contracts. Specifically, companies must ask themselves how they can help Government bring benefit to the taxpayer.

The polling data from Populus shows outsourcing security functions is a particularly sensitive issue, more so than private sector involvement in any other area of public service. Taxpayers have traditionally seen the provision of security and policing services as the monopoly of the state.  The onus – more so now than ever – is on companies to craft effective messages that resonate with the general public. To regain the respect of the public and potentially be entrusted with large contracts again, the private sector must continue to make the case that it can support public services and deliver efficiency, expertise and innovation.

Despite the cross-cutting themes in the Open Services White Paper, there is no doubt that more can be done to make the vision a reality.  For this reason, we have reviewed all major legislation relating to public service reform introduced by this Government.  This is broken down by the key drivers of choice and control, decentralisation, diversity, fairness and accountability. Our findings suggest that, thus far, the reforming focus has concentrated most heavily on accountability and decentralisation, followed closely by fairness. This is due to a wealth of legislation aimed at delivering the Coalition’s broader localism agenda, and Coalition Agreement pledges on transparency. Select one of the tabs at the side for a breakdown of how each principle has been legislated.

A copy of the full Populus polling results can be viewed at http://www.populus.co.uk/Poll/Public-Service-Priorities-to-2015/