Services to the public and a new role for business

By Lord Victor Adebowale & Dr Henry Kippin of Collaborate

Public services is too narrow a concept to capture the shift that government and the policy world need to make. Instead, we need to be talking about ‘services to the public’, and re-thinking all of our roles within a new delivery landscape.

This might not sound controversial, but the consequences are. They could re-shape the public services market and the role of business in society. Here are three reasons why, three starting points for reform, and three things business should be doing about it.

  1. The Landscape is getting more complex — the operating context for public services is becoming increasingly complex — both in terms of the scope of social need and demand, and the means through which these needs can be addressed. Our work with the Institute for Government found that, in areas of multiple or complex social need, commissioning arrangements are often undermined by a lack of proper citizen engagement, and can be distorted by payment mechanisms that one provider called “blunt instruments” designed to control cost and shift risk to the detriment of citizens. Those with the most complex and pressing needs can be affected most.

2. Managing demand needs a whole-of-market approach — our research suggests that around 75% of citizens think that government has a role to play in improving living standards, finding a decent place to live, and being in meaningful work. Yet government is only one player in a diverse market, and traditional service solutions are clearly not enough. We need to work across the sectors to find better ways of meeting demand upstream, with business in particular playing a stronger and more socially aware role supporting employment, mobility, and new enterprise within communities. The JRF’s Julia Unwin argues that the high street is, in some senses, becoming the new front-line of public services. She points to a broader truth about our shared responsibility for identifying and meeting social need.

3. We aren’t even getting to first base with the public — citizen engagement is both absolutely essential and frequently misunderstood. Our research with Ipsos mori shows that only 14% of citizens feel they have a stake in the public services they receive, and only 24% felt their needs are regularly met. We should be depressed about these findings. Yet they should not just only be a spur to service improvement — a majority feel that the way people are treated is just as important as (and indeed intrinsic to) the outcome. In the wake of scandals in the public services market, business must take a lead in embedding values of dignity and respect in the delivery of public services

These issues are fundamental — they get to the root of what a service to the public should feel like, and what the role of business should be in delivering them. Values, respect and an absolute focus on citizens and communities are vital. How can we incentivise this?

Here are three starting points:
  1. Create proper platforms for citizen-driven commissioning — we cannot effect demand management, behaviour change or collaborative commissioning without real insight into the needs, wants, assets and aspirations of communities, with citizens themselves leading this process. Creating the right conditions and methodologies to do this is a vital first step which the public sector should lead, learning from smart emerging practice in places as diverse as Oldham, Suffolk, Derbyshire, Wiltshire, Haringey and Sunderland.
  2. Prepare ourselves to collaborate better — we don’t pay enough attention to our readiness to collaborate – and this is a crucial barrier to making it happen in practice. We frequently prioritise structure over culture. In the health service for example, it is curious that far less attention has been afforded to the individual and collective valence of clinicians, managers and public leaders to work together. Without this, structural change will struggle to change cultures and frontline practice — something Collaborate will be addressing in our forthcoming Health Collaboration Lab.
  3. Encourage future leaders to think across sectors — collaborating in public services requires a different form of leadership – less command and control, more adaptive and distributed, and more attuned to the need for give and take without complete control. This is well-trodden ground in theory, and in the private sector. For the public sector (in which management and risk is undoubtedly more complex), adopting this stance in a period of extreme uncertainty is difficult. Yet we are seeing emerging examples in local government, and much enthusiasm for the value of ‘leading across the sectors’, as a recent Collaborate report with the Clore Social Leadership Programme sets out.

So far so consensual (though hardly widespread), and no doubt something business can sign up to. But like most collaborations that have value, there is an inherent stickiness too. Acknowledging and addressing this will be a true marker of the willingness of public service businesses to lead a new, values driven way of delivering.

Businesses need to re-think their responsibilities to the public upon which they rely.

Enjoying the patronage of the public is not something that should be taken lightly. Citizens value dignity, treatment and respect as well as outcomes, and it is not enough for organisations delivering services to the public to say “we weren’t contracted to do that”, or “we just deliver”. Shared responsibility means holding ourselves to account on principles of inclusiveness, re-distribution, fiscal integrity and public value. The best businesses will (and do) embrace this agenda, just as the public and social sectors should too.

There are important implications at different levels. At the macro level, the CBI is right to call for a culture of transparency and honesty about public service contracting and delivery — particularly as the unintended consequences of poor contracting decisions in some big areas of public spending become apparent.

At the local level, businesses can and should be stepping up to the plate to be part of a more collaborative growth setup — working far more obviously with local authorities, skills and education providers, and the social sector in communities. And at the micro level, there is a clear need to create closer, more engaged and more co-productive relationships with citizens, playing out at ground level the values we espouse in the boardroom.

Better relationships between business, state and society must be at the heart of our future model of services to the public. But lets not wait for the perfect roadmap to be drawn out in Whitehall. The best of the private sector will make value-driven change happen now, and we are supporting them in their efforts to do it.

Lord Victor Adebowale & Dr Henry Kippin are Chairman and Director respectively of Collaborate — an independent social business established to support and improve cross-sector collaboration. To talk to us about our work, contact henry@collaboratei.com and see www.collaboratei.com

Listen to Lord Adebowale speak at our last CBI Public Services Network event

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sskv2o9UVo
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