Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Public services; open, closed or just a thing of the past

The beautifully entitled Open Public Services White Paper has proved to be the basis for much heated debate in the East Midlands. I have spent a great deal of time over the last few weeks huddled around tables trying to really understand why anyone would think that creating mass competition in the public service market place is, in itself, going to create better quality and why another layer of local government is really what we need in this period of cuts.

Never before have I found myself publicly advocating for a revisit and strengthening of the role of district authorities. But when we are faced with the idea of Neighbourhood Councils (bigger than parish / smaller than district) then a redistribution across the status quo suddenly becomes pretty appealing.

The headlines from our response to the paper were:
  • In general the devolution of power is positive but this is costly and difficult to achieve during a period of national austerity. Devolving services mustn’t be a cover for budget cuts and service loss.
  • In a climate of reduced spending, most people would rather see investment and consistent delivery quality by existing service providers than expensive investment in untested models. For example, a parent would rather know that their local school performs just as well as the others in the vicinity rather than have the choice and complex decision between 4 or 5.
  • Choice of services and availability are finite – where many service users choose the same provider, e.g. an excellent day care service, will Government stop it becoming a ‘rich man's’ choice for those that can afford to top up budgets?
  • The thought of Neighbourhood Councils is pretty scary; expensive to develop and in addition to an already confusing system we would be better to sort out the upper tier / district complexities than invest further resource into more layers.
  • There is no evidence that competition for competition’s sake drives down cost and increases quality.
  • Taking Southern Cross as an example, who will protect vulnerable people from market failure in a future where the market is much more diverse and fragmented than at present?
Finally – the biggest worry for me is the idea that ‘Payment by results’ leads to better outcomes. There is shared concern about whether this will need intervention to help ‘level the playing field’.  

This could be interpreted as ‘a bit of an understatement’. In my experience PBR actively ploughs up the playing field and then installs electric fencing, armed guards and watch towers!

At least on this basis the PBR model will work well for Serco’s latest venture into the world of public service delivery…….

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