The mirages served up by reforms shouldn’t deflect us from viewing localism as the answer

The coalition government is absolutely right to strive for localism. It’s just a shame it’s so out of touch with the way its reforms are playing out on the ground, says David Boyle

Mirage in desertOpen Public Services was a strange business. The rhetoric was spot on: choice, decentralisation, fairness, diversity, accountability – not so much the Five Giants that Beveridge warned us about, but the Five Mirages that never quite appear.

They have been mirages ever since Whitehall started to gargle with the words. In practice, choice meant handing over choices about our schools and hospital appointments to professionals, and a hideous run around for anyone who wanted anything different. Diversity meant, as so often, a multiplicity of identical choices. In practice, decentralisation meant almost the precise opposite.

Accountability meant targets and standards and the vast edifice that was constructed to collect and enforce them, which was about accountability – not to us – but to Whitehall, and via them to McKinsey, the ubiquitous management consultants who played the tune.

Whatever the politicians believe now, there is little evidence that Whitehall has learned from their mistakes over the past generation, so I fear these objectives may well remain mirages for the time being.

In other words, I do not distrust the coalition because it is the coalition. Quite the reverse, I believe their efforts to loosen the sheer inflexibility of public services under New Labour is absolutely sincere.

But I worry about their grasp of the problem on the ground, and the whether the structures being created will create the diverse network of cohesive mutuals and social enterprises around public services that ministers say they want.

This is particularly important when it comes to procurement, as the CLES report Responsible Reform so rightly says. The new Social Value Bill will improve the chances of imaginative and effective services on the ground, but there is little in Open Public Services that suggests this is likely to be the direction of travel.

We shall see.

That is the problem as matters stand, not localism. Anyone who believes that centralisation is the path to equality needs only to look at the NHS in the poorer neighbourhoods of Britain. The most centralised mechanism in Western Europe, and still the standard of services are frontline services seemed determined by socio-economic geography.

Quite apart from anything else, localism allows the possibility of experiment. Which is why the final recommendation of Responsible Reform, about responding to the opportunity of co-production in service design and delivery, is so important.

There is an opportunity there, because the NHS is committed to something it calls ‘co-production’ and many other public services are beginning to look sniff around similar ideas. I’m not yet convinced that senior NHS managers understand the meaning of the concept – but they will.

There are already patients delivering broad, informal services alongside doctors, just as there are parents working alongside teachers in schools.

This is not just volunteering: it can mean broadening and deepening what services are possible, and it means turning our understanding of public services around – so that they become catalysts for knitting society together again around them. This is possible only if we use the resources that local people represent.

What seems to happen when services become two-way – when people are giving something back in this way – is that the power dynamic begins to change. They own the services they are using in whole new ways. They defend them effectively. They become equal partners with the professionals.

They are not drains on an overstretched system, as they are seen now. They are partners and resources, humanising the service around them.

That won’t solve the problem of equality overnight, but it is an important contribution. Because co-production is about shifting the power dynamic in services.

If it doesn’t do that, it isn’t co-production.


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Fernando Centeno
Fernando Centeno
12 years ago

Hopefully, with the benefit of outsider status, may I ask, where is the role of E.D. practitioners in this “reform” movement? By definition, they need to be front and center, not marginalized, and led by central gov’t Ministers and a costly management consulting firm.

Management and nibbling around the edges is easy, what’s hard and necessary is centering a real effort toward concrete results, and all that this implies. I wish to say more but cannot.

In short, our profession is more sophisticated than this agenda suggests, in my view.

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