Is there a role for everyone in the future of public services?

Alex Cousins, Business Development Director, shares her views.

If it’s time for a fresh look at public services, voices from all sections of the community are key.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the changing nature of the public service ethos. Many argue that the line between public and private service provision is so blurred these days that it’s time to look at it a different way: that a public service ethos is no longer confined to the public sector, it can come from anywhere.

Lord Adebowale and Henry Kippin are avid proponents of this shift in thinking and that a subtle change in wording, from ‘public services’ to ‘services to the public’, would reflect the belief that the future of services needs to be more collaborative – built around the needs of citizens. They champion a place-based approach and call for every sector to have a hand in developing solutions to the challenges facing public services, proposing that ‘the public sector cannot deliver better outcomes on their own’. Are they right?

Most local authority leaders would agree that it’s reached crisis point when it comes to public services, with demand outstripping supply and expectations rising, while funding is decreasing. Consequently, most local authority leaders would also agree that it is time to move forward.

Some councils are sharing resources, some are taking a more commercial approach to develop income streams from their assets, while others are striking up a new deal with their partners and citizens. And it’s in initiatives like these that the private sector has a role to play.

Compulsory Competitive Tendering brought the public and private sector together back in the 80s, and the private sector has had a role in the delivery of public services ever since. Whether it’s through people, jobs, software, contracts or services, they are already part of the system and can support the move to change.

And, while a Localis report in 2016 showed that many public sector workers believe private sector involvement has affected the quality of public services and the core values of the public service ethos (albeit a view interestingly not wholly shared by younger workers), the same report found that the public feels the quality of public services has actually remained broadly the same – and in some cases led to an improvement.

Certain (mis)conceptions remain that the private sector has to overcome. We know that. Once upon a time, all eyes were on savings and efficiencies, but that’s changing. Increasingly, local authority/private sector partnerships are built around the place agenda and how organisations like Capita can best support the citizen, transform services and deliver good growth in a backdrop of austerity cuts and increasing social and health care demands.

Working collaboratively for change

With the private sector so woven into the way of things, they are perfectly placed to be part of a system change. Earlier this year I was invited to join the People’s Powerhouse – and I’ve honestly never seen representatives from such wildly different backgrounds and stances all working together in one room. With people from all kinds of organisations across the North including local authorities, combined authorities, business networks, social enterprises, think tanks, universities, individuals and private sector businesses. But here all have a common purpose. As the name suggests, it’s about people being the key to building a long-term movement for change that supports good and inclusive growth in the North, with voices from all sections of the community. And I think the private sector has much to offer, delivering value into a community with a certain set of skills, networks, experience and commercial nous to help a place transform and grow.

Lord Adebowale and Henry Kippin see the future of services to the public as ‘a mixed bag of services that help the public, but aren’t necessarily delivered by a council, or even the public sector’. And there are promising moves towards collaborative working – in initiatives such as the People’s Powerhouse, ‘The Deal’ in Wigan and Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham’s, community approach to service reform – all great examples of how different organisations can all influence each other and bring about change.

Personally, I believe a public service ethos can be upheld by all kinds of providers, working together, sharing learning and doing what each of us does best to meet the needs of the public. If the system is to change, we all need to. I am certainly challenging myself and looking at Capita’s role in the places we serve, looking at ways to work collaboratively with other sectors and the community to support future change to local government and support not just growth, but ‘good growth’ and social value.