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Public services
The good, the bad, and the future

All countries have a state sector whatever the political nature of their governments and their economic and social systems. Enduring questions remain as to the limit of the state, and for what purposes it should be used. Answers have varied across times and regions with fierce debates over policy programmes for more privatisation or greater public ownership.

The role of the public sector is intensely political, and so it should be. Major strategic decisions must be dealt with politically by the government. This includes the allocation of resources, how priorities are determined, what reforms are sanctioned and who bears ultimate responsibility when things go wrong. All main UK parties have sought to diffuse popular criticisms of public services as being too bureaucratic and unaccountable, with recommendations about localism and devolving power. It is important, therefore, to be cautious about over-robust localism as it can mitigate against the key benefit of having a public sector, namely integrated national planning.  Excessive localism can also lead to fragmentation of the supply-side, fragmentation of national staff standards, and place even more decision-making powers in the hands of increasingly unaccountable senior managers.

This paper argues that while there is a definite need to engage public service users and staff in the provision of services, accountable politicians have to be the guardians of those services as they are the only ones with the power and authority to control the senior managers who run them. Local councils should have enhanced, rather than diminished roles, but MPs and ministers are the final decision-makers and should neither hide behind fake protocols nor wash their hands and run for cover.

The argument that private sector profit-seeking senior managers will make the most efficient and effective resource allocations and service delivery decisions is no longer plausible. Failures of the market-centred approach have been sustained and consistently repeated, contributing greatly to the vast societal inequalities we are experiencing today. There have been remarkable success stories throughout the history of the public sector, but bad cases have driven out good practice from the political, not the public, imagination. This paper calls for a larger and better state sector. Rather than a nostalgic fantasy, the proposals laid out here are rooted in rational economic planning decisions that would bring with them both greater efficiency of production and greater justice in provision.

This paper argues that state ownership remains a necessary condition but notes that public ownership alone will not be sufficient to achieve efficiency and justice. For that to happen more has to be done. This paper recommends:

1. Ensuring equity in service provision through national standards
Good quality services must be delivered to those who require it, in a timely manner and to recognised national standards.

2. Senior decision makers must be held accountable
Decisions must be made on the basis of budgets, efficiency and effectiveness, and realistic risk-assessments of likely demand for the services. Senior managers must be more accountable for their actions through local and national political processes.

3. Budgets must be set by national political leaders
Local managers must have some discretion over what is spent and how, in order to take account of local need and variation. All goods and services provided by the state should be planned and integrated at local, regional, and national level.

4. Political responsibility must be reasserted
There needs to be greater explicit political control and public debate about priorities.

5. There must be agreed national standards throughout all services
To ensure national standards we must have national training and qualifications, national pay and conditions determined by national collective bargaining, and national regulation.

6. The workforce and community must be engaged to a greater extent
In order to prevent arbitrary and oppressive management there should be more participation by unions, pressure groups, and other communities of interests.

7. Existing regulation must undergo urgent reform
All regulation should come under an expanded Audit Commission with wide-ranging powers to audit both financial probity and service delivery.

8. Risk assessment must be made by experts, users, staff and politicians alike
Risk assessment is too important to be left to the calculations of management consultants and those involved in profit-making markets.

9. The spirit of public service must be rekindled
Public services will only be produced and delivered if those involved return to an ethos that values the work, the service, and the users.

These proposals amount to a claim for rational planning for the future of public services. Sensible economic planning, integrated systems thinking, and the application of the best science and technology in the interests of citizens will be the future of public service delivery. The goal should be services that are delivered to national standards, planned over many years, integrated with other services for efficient use of scarce resources, and accountable to politicians and the wider community.