Based on interviews with 62 senior managers in the public, private and voluntary sector, and a poll of over 1,000 members of the general public, the survey revealed that whilst over 76 per cent of those that work in the public sector believe it has improved over the last four years, only one in five members of the public agree.
The survey also highlighted a similar perceptions gap about the future prospects for public services. Over 80 per cent of public sector managers said the improvements in the sector would continue over the next four years, compared to just one in three members of the public.
Jeremy Beecham, LGA chair said: `It is clear from this survey that there is significant enthusiasm and commitment to driving up standards amongst councils and other public sector organisations.
`It highlights the need for the public sector to get better at selling success and evidence of real service improvement.
`But it also underlines the daunting challenge of turning important, incremental improvements in service standards and new investment into a transformation in the public's experience of our public services'.
While both senior managers and the public were pragmatic about the need to work with the private sector, the survey also reveals that new partnerships may be jeopardised by scepticism in the business community about the public sector's ability to raise its game.
Three quarters of business leaders thought services had deteriorated over the last four years. Public sector optimism about improvement contrasted sharply with the predictions by 61 per cent of business leaders that services would get worse over the next four years.
However, despite these differences of opinion, people's trust in public service providers evidently remains in tact: with a clear message to central government to enable and not dictate.
Eighty seven per cent of all the managers across the three sectors surveyed, agreed the government should stand back and allow those running services to get on with the job - a sentiment echoed by over three-quarters of the public.
Sir Jeremy said: `The survey reveals that while the private sector has a role to play in delivering better services, it is no panacea. Success will depend on a clear understanding and respect for each partner's contribution to the improvement agenda.
`Councils and public sector managers need to be given more space to innovate and lead the reform agenda if they are to deliver - and be seen to be delivering - to those they serve.'
1) The Agenda for Public Services in the New Parliament: A survey of stakeholders and the public is being launched at a conference today at the Institute of Directors, London SW1. The event, A bright future for public services? is being jointly organised by the LGA; NHS Confederation; GMB; UNISON; IDeA; National Housing Federation; Association of Police Authorities; Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Secondary Heads Association.
2) A copy of the summary report are attached for information.
3) A copy of the full report can be obtained from the LGA's website.
About the survey
The Local Government Association (LGA) commissioned Taylor Nelson Sofres to carry out research on the future of public services. The research involved 62 semi-structured telephone interviews with a range of stakeholders, comprising senior managers from the public, private and voluntary sector, between 8 and 17 August 2001. In addition Taylor Nelson Sofres conducted 1,013 telephone interviews with the general public between 24 and 26 August 2001.
Opinion of the public sector
'At its best the public sector guarantees the public good and serves as a safety net for the excluded.' This quotation from a stakeholder summarises what many stakeholders think the public sector does best: provide services which are in the public interest to all, particularly those most in need. Other positive characteristics of the sector included its accountability and the fact that it provides difficult services which cannot be run profitably. There was also a feeling that the public sector was good at delivering at a local level.
The main criticism of the public sector, among stakeholders, was that it was poor at selling itself. It was therefore often seen as defensive, reactive and remote. Some also saw the public sector as being bureaucratic, slow to change and not as close to their users as they might be. Some thought the public sector was not suited to carrying out large scale, commercial projects or dealing with non-core services such as ICT.
Opinion of public services
Two-thirds of stakeholders (67 per cent) say that services provided by the public sector have got better in the last four years; a minority (23 per cent) say they have got worse. Businesses are less positive than others: only a quarter of them (23 per cent) say public services have improved. Greater investment was the main reason for stakeholders believing that services had improved. Local authorities, more than others, acknowledged that a performance management culture and Best Value in particular was also helping produce improvements in service delivery.
Stakeholders are optimistic about the future. 71 per cent say that the public sector will get better over the next four years if the present trends continue; a minority believe they will get worse (19 per cent). Businesses again are less optimistic than others with 62 per cent of them saying that public services will get worse.
The general public has not seen the improvements in service delivery which the stakeholders say have taken place over the last four years. Only one in five (20 per cent) say public services have improved in the last four years compared with 67 per cent of stakeholders. The public are more pessimistic about the future than stakeholders. Only about one in three (35 per cent) say services will improve in the next four years if present trends continue compared with 71 per cent of stakeholders.
What has worked
The majority of service providers (85 per cent) say their own organisation has improved in the last four years. Local authorities and the voluntary sector were more positive than other providers. The main reasons given for the improvement were: being more customer focused; better use and involvement of front line staff; and reorganising with clear priorities.
When specifically prompted, 74 per cent of stakeholders agree that there has been an improvement in services because of the way public sector agencies are working together on cross-cutting initiatives. There is almost universal agreement that there are links between improvement and effective leadership (94 per cent). About half (45 per cent) say that peer review programmes have improved public services.
'Lack of finance' was the main reason given by the majority of providers when asked about the barriers to improvement. Local and police authorities mentioned lack of finance more than other providers. Lack of resources impacted on providers' ability to attract and retain staff. However, many providers noted that there was also a shortage of trained staff. This affected service delivery as well as curtailed opportunities for planning improvements. Lack of trained staff was mentioned in particular by the health sector and local authorities. Other barriers were said to be resistance to change by some staff and lack of partnership working. Some felt there had been too many initiatives recently, sometimes with lack of clarity regarding the objectives.
There was a high degree of agreement that consulting end users more effectively to determine needs (92 per cent), engaging end users more fully in the planning process (90 per cent) and using leadership academies (79 per cent) would lead to improvements in public services. The majority of the public agrees (86 per cent) that if the public sector consulted them more effectively this would improve public services.
Working with the private and voluntary sectors
Eight in 10 (82 per cent) of stakeholders said working more closely with the voluntary sector would also help improve public services. Again we see no difference in opinion between stakeholders and the general public on this issue, seven out of 10 (71 per cent) of the public say that the public sector working with the voluntary sector will improve public services.
A smaller proportion (71 per cent) of stakeholders, but a majority, also said working more closely with the private sector would improve public services. Not surprisingly, the majority of business leaders interviewed, felt this. However, only 40 per cent of police authorities and trades unions felt the same. The majority of the public (66 per cent) say that the public sector working with the private sector will improve public services.
Stakeholders were able to name a wide variety of successful projects that involved the private and public sector working together. Examples of the projects included: provision of non-core services such as catering, IT, finance, training, helplines and legal advice; injection of finance/capital; public education campaigns and sponsorship of projects. Health and local authorities were also able to give specific examples of where contracting out of core services had been successful. The main reasons for successful working appeared to be where there was common understanding and shared values together with clarity about roles/outcomes. Having complementary skills and commitment to achieving results were also important for the success of these collaborations.
Inevitably stakeholders were also able to name a number of projects with the private sector which did not work well. The main reasons were the inability to meet the contract requirements because of a low-priced bid, together with lack of clarity about outcomes and inadequate contractual arrangements.
Working with the voluntary sector was successful where there had been mutual respect and common aims and objectives. Providers also felt they could understand the views of users better because of the involvement of specialist user groups. The main drawback of working with the voluntary sector was a lack of resources, as their reliance on volunteers made it difficult to sustain effort over a long period of time.
Judging the quality of public services
The majority of stakeholders (89 per cent) say that end-users should be in the best position to judge whether the public sector was effective in providing services. Eighteen per cent say the best judges are the local providers and only six per cent say central government is the best judge. However, 56 per cent of stakeholders say it is central government who actually judges how effective the public sector is in providing services. Only 19 per cent, one in five, say the end-users are the actual judges of performance.
When stakeholders were asked what should be done with failing authorities the most common response was to give them encouragement and support rather than punish them.
The role of central government
When asked what the role of central government should be in relation to improving public sector organisations, the majority wanted government to set the strategic direction and to have an 'enabling role' without dictating how outcomes should be achieved. Their role would involve setting priorities, standards and monitoring progress. Their role as a funder of services was also mentioned.
When specifically asked, two out of three (63 per cent) stakeholders said the government was too critical of the public sector. One in five (21 per cent) said they had got the balance right. One in 10 (13 per cent) said it was supportive.
Seven in 10 stakeholders (69 per cent) say that there is too much direction from Whitehall. Three quarters (76 per cent) also say that public sector providers have to deal with too much red tape/regulation and that statutory plans required by government involve duplication of effort. Eight in 10 (81 per cent) say the government has launched too many initiatives in recent years.
As far as indicators are concerned, seven in 10 agree that there are too many indicators (74 per cent), that the indicators used measure the wrong things (73 per cent) and that indicators were being used as a stick rather than a carrot (73 per cent).
The majority of the public (77 per cent) say central government should allow public service providers more freedom to get on with what they think works. This view is shared by stakeholders, with a large majority (87 per cent) agreeing that providers should be given more freedom to get on with what they think works.