Posted by:11 April, 2012
The Government last week published an update to its plans for open public services, injecting flexibility into local services through increased choice among individuals and greater competition among providers. According to the paper, the new public services agenda is here to treat citizens as “grown-ups – by giving them greater choice and control; genuine information on outcomes; and a stronger role for their communities”. Central to this is the Government’s call for evidence to see if there is merit in enshrining a “right to choose” in legislation.
This continued focus on choice, coupled with an overhaul in the way in which competition is assured among providers, makes the principle of open public services commendable. However, greater choice in this context of wider community involvement is inherently accompanied by the potential for greater risk. To ensure choice becomes an enabler, rather than a challenge, it is vital that councils quickly learn the appetite and tolerance for risk that their own community is able to sustain.
Public education and engagement is key. While ‘choice frameworks’ and a ‘right to choose’ should be empowering, they will be ineffective if the general public do not fully understand the role they play. Our own research with think-tank LGiU showed that a majority of councils believe the capacity within communities to manage services or assets is low. Progress therefore still needs to be made in encouraging the public to see the benefits that their community can expect to reap through their involvement in choosing a service or delivery mechanism. Accountability is a key aspect of this plan and it is essential that the parameters are clear upfront.
Local authorities will be a lynchpin in this new realm of devolved services. While many are already working closely with town and parish councils and community groups to develop local public service delivery models, they must now also adopt the role of go-between with government ombudsmen, private service providers, the new ‘Choice Champions’ and most importantly the general public. They must also take on a pivotal position in the commissioning and final decision about service provision, ensuring that providers fit with both their own limits for ‘innovation’ and those of the local community.
There are already examples where local communities are taking over the reins in service delivery. In Havering, for example a small community group has successfully set up Havering Museum, independent of, yet in close liaison with, the local council. However such examples are all still relatively low risk. To involve the community in more complex services will require structured delivery models and greater engagement from local authorities down to community groups.
The doors are now opening then for a new era of service delivery with the potential for some positive change. Nevertheless, with the premise very firmly rooted in choice, it is important that local authorities continue to remember that increased individual choice will only ever result in better and increased services if that choice is well- informed.
Andrew Jepp, director of Public Services at Zurich Municipal talks about the nature of public service risk