BLOG: We need a public services constitution

Last week, George Osborne laid out his spending plans for the next five years. They were, at first glance, less painful than we had been led to expect. Improved financial forecasts meant that he was able to protect budgets we had all predicted would be slashed. So, then, should we be feeling optimistic about the future of our public services?

Closer inspection of Osborne’s statement would suggest all is not as rosy as it could be. Social care will no longer be funded by central government, but instead by increased council tax rates. An announcement of ‘more support’ for workless individuals with disabilities actually means more conditionality. This is a blunder, given the failure of the Work Programme – the prime example of these conditionalities and support – to help those disabled individuals claiming Employment and Support Allowance.

But, it is argued, these are tough times (although forecast to be less tough than they might have been) and require tough measures. That may be true, but it is not a reason to abandon those who most need good public services. These marginalised individuals are all too often let down by government services which give the overwhelming impression of not caring.

This is why Acevo’s recent reportRemaking the State – argued that we need to rewrite the social contract which binds the Government to the people. Rather than being happy with the piecemeal reforms which are so often promised – by politicians of all stripes – we should seek a permanent and revolutionary change in the way our public services are delivered. It is only by securing such a change that we can ensure that our most vulnerable citizens receive the services which they deserve.

Central to this is giving people more power over the services they receive. Our government is predicated on the idea that it is answerable to the people. All too often, we see this neglected in favour of a government which is imposed upon the population. This clearly isn’t working. Across the political spectrum we see power being wielded by those who feel that they know best and services delivered by monolithic private sector organisations. In reality, nobody knows a person’s needs better than that person. Involving people in service design – and thus capturing their knowledge – seems an obvious move. As does placing the delivery of services with those closest to their communities – the third sector. This is why a new Public Services Constitution would have as a central tenet the right of people to control over, and involvement in, the design and delivery of their public services.

But simply demanding more rights is not enough. We have seen several attempts to do just this fall into disuse because they lack enforceability. This is where the Public Services Constitution stands apart. Too often, the public sector refuses to learn from best practice elsewhere. Here, it is suggested that they change this habit. Learning from the private sector, Remaking the State proposes that the power of super-complaint be extended to cover the delivery of public services. This would give real power back to the people, allowing action to be taken where they are systematically wronged.

This is not an insignificant change. Instead, it would attempt to change the underlying structure of our public services. But this is no bad thing. Incremental change is too often the death knell of genuine reform. To enact the changes which are so badly needed, we are better off simply starting from the ground up.

When we published Remaking the State, we referred to it as a ‘call to action’. Not just action from charities, but from the Government. If, as George Osborne says, the Conservative party are ‘the builders’, then this gives them the perfect opportunity to build a public sector which truly works in the public interest. This, we would all agree, should be one of his first priorities.

Simon Dixon is policy and development officer at Acevo

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