Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Public Service Reform in Scotland and England

I'm currently doing some work on accountability in a world of more decentralised services. As part of some thinking about the position in Scotland I went back and read (I have to admit for the first time) the Christie Commission report on the future delivery of public services published this summer 

It makes extremely interesting reading, the more so when compared to the Open Public Services white paper (OPSWP) setting out the direction of public service reform in England.

The five principles set out in the OPSWP are - increasing choice; decentralisation of services to the lowest appropriate level; being open to a range of providers; fair access; and accountability to users and taxpayers.

The starting point for Christie is an analysis which suggests that the main issues are:

  • taking demand out of the system through preventative actions and early intervention to tackle the root causes of inequality and negative outcomes;
  • working more closely with individuals and communities to understand their needs and mobilise a wider range of Scotland’s talents and assets in response to these needs, and to support self reliance and community resilience
  • tackling fragmentation and complexity in the design and delivery of public services by improving coherence and collaboration between agencies and sectors; and
  • improving transparency, challenge and accountability to bring a stronger focus on value for money and achieving positive outcomes for individuals and communities.
The commission report is powerful in the connection that it draws between the need for greater involvement of the community in helping to design services; the need for much more integration including in budgeting, governance, duties and accountability in order to be able to respond effectively; the emphasis on prevention in order to save money in the longer term and the need for shared approaches in the shorter term to improve value for money.

The contrast between the two approaches hardly needs drawing out although it is of course fair to say that the OPSWP does make some play of community budgets and a role for local authorities to integrate resources around some of the most intractable problems, particularly where these are related to families. But this comes across as something of an adjunct to the main proposals.

If one looks at the five principles in the OPSWP and compares them to the very forthright thinking in Christie about the future reform of public services it shows an absolutely massive difference in emphasis.

The Scottish principles are all around co-design with communities and the need for an overhaul of the relationships within and between public agencies to move towards much greater integration of decision making (possibly - although on this they are clearly sceptical - a single public authority for an area); joint planning and budgeting; and shared services whether back or front office with robust external challenge from well informed and powerful regulators and from central and local bodies holding each other to account for their respective roles in achieving defined outcomes which are about addressing root inequalities (rather than focusing on mitigation measures to achieve fair access in a world which may well remain inherently unequal).

The routes that England and Scotland follow in relation to public service reform look set to diverge rapidly and significantly if the Scottish Government follow anything approaching the course suggested in Christie.

As a footnote I did word searches for the terms 'decentralisation', 'choice' and 'competition'. They each turned up a blank. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Post Democracy - happening now

I wrote recently about a post democratic world

This story - which has been running in a variety of ways for a little while now - about the influence being exerted by some of the insurance companies that potentially stand to gain from the changes in legal aid is a worrying example of just that phenomenon.

Some may say that lobbying has always been part of the process of government and that it's much more pronounced in some other countries, notably the US.

But this is about repositioning the role of lobbyists from asking the questions to helping to construct the answers. That should give us all pause for thought.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

'Changing Fortunes': the 'rubber band' model

Changing Fortunes is a fascinating new dynamic sociological analysis of income and poverty by Stephen Jenkins from the LSE. The particularly interesting aspect of this work is that it is a longitudinal study (using data from the British Household Panel Survey) of the same cohort over a lengthy period rather than a series of snapshots using different sample populations and that it looks at all sources of income including wages, savings and benefits rather than focusing solely on one source. 

If the population is then divided up into 10 blocks containing equal numbers it is possible to look at both the overall shape and the degree of movement between the blocks. Two metaphors are perhaps useful here - a building for the overall shape and a rubber band for the degree of movement.

In terms of the building what is increasingly apparent is that it is a skyscraper rather than a bungalow which is entirely consistent with the plethora of recent studies showing increasing income inequality.

The rubber band is more interesting. There are both relatively small movements between consecutive floors in the building where the band is stretched a little but not greatly but also some much larger tensions where someone moves several floors up or down.

The extent of movement is considerable. About 50% of those in the basement (the lowest floor) will move upwards although the tension on the rubber band means that the movement up becomes increasingly difficult so smaller and smaller numbers reach the upper floors. But about 30% of the inhabitants of the building (taking all floors together) will at some point visit the basement.

This is fascinating since it suggests that:

- the extent of a residual underclass may be overstated in some analyses (although it has to be said that whilst this study is a reasonably lengthy one going back to 1991 it is not and does not pretend to be an inter-generational study and even on this analysis about half of the people in the basement stay there)

- there are some perhaps unsurprising developments for individuals (such as educational attainment) which allow them to access the stairs between floors

- the experience of poverty (using the standard definition of <60% median income in the relevant year) is much more widespread across the population at least at some point in the lives of individuals.

The study ends in 2006 prior to the credit crunch, the recession and the austerity package introduced by the current Government. The analysis suggests that the policies designed to address income poverty had some effect in the period under consideration and made the UK less vulnerable to increasing poverty than some others such as the US.

The big question for the future is how far the pattern described in the study will be affected by the recession and by changes in public policy.

But the most interesting point of all is that poverty is something that many people will experience in their lives, certainly not just the the province of a feckless, lazy or feral underclass. If that experience is increasingly shared it should make us all think about our attitudes to those who happen to be in the basement at a given point in time and just how tall the building rising above them has become.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Transparency and Accountability

Last week, the Government published the responses to consultation on its proposed code of practice on transparency:

Relatively little seems to have changed as a result of the consultation. There are substantive arguments about the benefits, the scale of the additional burdens and the practicability and effectiveness of the proposed approach which are given a thorough airing in the responses, some of which are hard hitting and don't need repeating here.

In many ways the bigger problem is how narrow the whole debate has been. Any purposive analysis of transparency as currently envisaged would inevitably conclude that it is narrow in the extreme: removing 'top-down bureaucractic' mechanisms and providing raw data to people who are assumed to have the time and the energy to form substantive judgements about it (although this does of course fit with the wider assumption that people know better than politicians which was the subject of a previous post).

Lets just examine briefly two of the ways in which this misses some bigger opportunities. 

The first is that the approach remains partial. For example:

- it fails to recognise that the aim of the Government in increasing diversity in the responsibility for the delivery of public services should place analogous requirements on all bodies which are undertaking such activities not just a requirement to be clear about the amounts going to third sector bodies (something which is frankly neither here nor there in a properly value driven system)

- there is no adequate treatment of how significant comparability of data is for being able to draw any meaningful conclusions. Mechanisms and organisations which previously provided some of that comparability are being removed in parallel.

The second is bigger again. As the Centre for Public Scrutiny set out very clearly in their response, there is no proper engagement with the substantive questions about true accountabilty which must include discussion of governance and decision making. Transparency, even if achieved in an effective manner, is only ever one element of accountability.

The response to consultation does deal briefly with concerns that the code and the current approach may lead to the emergence of a compliance culture. Perhaps it is not overly surprising that there may be a focus on compliance with process requirements when that is where most of the attention has been placed and in the absence of a more purposive approach.

In contrast, a substantive discussion about how to enhance the broader accountability of decision making for public services would be very welcome. It would, however, look rather different to a discussion primarily about the provision of raw data which is focused on how much is spent - rather than why and with what effect.