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Changing the narrative

Source: PSE - Jun/Jul 16

chris painterChris Painter, Emeritus Professor of public policy and management at Birmingham City University, examines taken-for-granted assumptions shaping public governance and management.

Putting nuances to one side, and acknowledging recent embellishments, a dominant discourse has framed public governance and reform of public services for nearly four decades. Underlying assumptions and values have been taken almost for granted. Responses to the ‘great recession’ that ensued from the financial crisis of 2007-08 perpetuated the same mindset. It is more than timely to critique this prevailing ethos, carving out space for alternative narratives. 

The following propositions provide a contrasting lens through which to view the agendas of the public policy and governance community. 

Austerity induces short-term thinking and expediency 

Austerity has shunted costs from one public service to another (from social care to health, mental health to policing, housing to education and from welfare to all other public service providers). When unexpected crises arise, tranches of money are simply shuffled around to paper over cracks. Moreover, the cumulative effect is suppression of pressures that will need to be released at some point. For example, prolonged restraint on public sector pay is already taking its toll on retention and recruitment of staff of the right calibre. 

It is not even as if George Osborne’s goal of achieving a budget surplus by 2019-20 any longer commands much credibility after the March Budget. That objective now requires a large fiscal adjustment in the latter (pre-election) stages of the current Parliament, following downgrading of economic growth and productivity forecasts. 

Structural meddling a poor substitute for game-changing reform 

The austerity agenda has also destabilised established institutions rather than building a new institutional architecture fit for the 21st century. The absence of any radical institutional re-evaluation, to guard against a repeat of the financial and economic crises of the last decade, stands in stark contrast to the post-1945 generation of political leaders when dealing with the economic dislocations associated with the ‘great depression’ of the 1930s. 

Restructuring of the health service under the Coalition government was shaping up to have an equivalent in the current Parliament, in the form of compulsory academisation of schools, toned down because of opposition from across the political spectrum. The expressed view of the chief inspector of schools in England, and head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is that the largest academy chains display as many weaknesses in improving educational outcomes as did some local education authorities. Whilst joint working has long been the Holy Grail for health and social care, Ailsa Cameron from the University of Bristol points out that substantive progress on integrated care remains elusive despite endless structural tinkering. Round in ever-decreasing circles! 

Local devolution programme lacks coherence 

On the face of it, Osborne’s English local devolution experiment would appear to qualify as groundbreaking institutional reform, paving the way for more potentially powerful metro mayors. An inexorable upward drift of powers, encapsulated by New Labour’s micro-management of public services from Whitehall, gave further credence to the depiction of our governance as one of the most centralised of developed democracies. Nonetheless, recent devolution settlements have been ad hoc in nature, individually negotiated, variable in content, and applying no coherent principles. 

Lack of consistency is breathtaking. Devolution packages including health, as in Greater Manchester, are the latest endeavour to create more holistic health and social care. Yet, simultaneously, local education authorities are being dismantled as ultimate responsibility for schools is centralised in Whitehall through the academy programme. The debate generated by the 2016 Housing and Planning Act highlighted concerns around the threat posed to the powers of local planning authorities, let alone the further forced disposal of social housing stock. 

Financial aspects of local government devolution, even as they relate to council tax and business rates, remain subject to politically-loaded restrictions. The combined authorities who will be the main beneficiaries of additional devolved powers are, moreover, superimposed on what is already an unfathomably complex system of English local government – unitary authorities in some areas existing alongside two-tier county and district structures elsewhere. Determining who is responsible for what and ensuring effective public accountability in the context of such complexity is going to be something of a nightmare. 

268 Whitehall, Treasury, Civil Service edit

 Public money has to be effectively accounted for whatever its destination 

Crystallising concern has been the difficulty in ascertaining whether value for money is obtained from outsourced services, too often shrouded by considerations of commercial confidentiality. Back in 2014, following a critical report from the Public Accounts Committee, the Coalition government committed to the Open Contracting Data Standard. 

Implementation of the greater public transparency this entails take effect from October 2016. This issue, however, strikes nearer to the heart of Whitehall, exemplified in the difficulties experienced by the Department for Education in its oversight of the often opaque finances of academy schools/chains. The more fragmented public service delivery, the more problematic adhering to this principle becomes. 

Managing across organisational sectors has to be judged by the added public value 

The benefits from combining the resources of private, public and voluntary organisations are another tenet now taken for granted, with all that implies for ‘public servant’ career trajectories. Public value is, however, more likely to materialise through long-term relational partnerships than through short-term transactional outsourcing. Even then, promise has not always lived up to expectations. There are those local authorities bringing services back in-house because efficiency gains proved to be short-lived, or because service effectiveness was undermined by contractual inflexibility.           

All citizens should feel they have an irrefutable stake in society 

In the past, UK governments felt obliged to act on behalf of all citizens irrespective of voting affiliations. Of late, however, public policy has taken on a more partisan flavour. 

You reward those most likely to support your own political party. So, policy costs and benefits become skewed to the advantage of certain social groups/geographical localities and to the detriment of others.

Thus fiscal retrenchment affects low-paid, flexible members of the labour force (the new ‘precariat’) more than affluent sections of society. This also holds true if we measure the impact of spending cuts on local authorities by the relative wealth of their populations. Moreover, plans to substitute locally raised revenues for government grants and to make local authorities financially self-sustaining will leave those with less buoyant economies or lower property values in a vulnerable position. 

That will exacerbate long-standing regional inequalities, unless there are compensating equalisation and safeguarding measures, with development of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ stymied. Then there are questions of inter-generational equity, resources cumulatively transferring from the younger to older generations since 2010. 

That commonly understood notion of fairness having guided fiscal policy is, therefore hardly borne out, despite repeated political mantras to the contrary. David Cameron has once again been burnishing his ‘modernising’ credentials for the final ‘legacy’ phase of his premiership; hence the prominence given to the rhetorical theme of enhancing life-chances for the disadvantaged in the recent Queen’s Speech. Tensions between the austerity and social reform agendas are nonetheless never far beneath the surface. 

The public domain is at risk of being terminally damaged 

Our collective interests as a society have increasingly played second fiddle to individual preferences and market transactions. Yet as Danny Dorling, professor of geography at the University of Oxford, highlights in his recent book, ‘A Better Politics’, the wider social fabric feeds into our sense of personal wellbeing. Government policies often harm the very things that survey evidence suggests matter most to us. 

Indeed, growing social and economic divisions generate heightened levels of insecurity and anxiety for all, irrespective of material status. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ – in which the worth of shared assets is depleted through individually self-interested behaviour – is in danger of being superseded by the pervasiveness of social exclusion. One small symptom is growing corporatisation of public spaces in our major cities. 

This brings us back to fundamental institutional reform. Take the idea of a universal basic income (UBI), currently being explored by the Royal Society of Arts and others. It has the potential to change the dynamic of relationships between individuals, families and society, removing the need for a complex welfare bureaucracy tailored to ever more stringent conditionality rules and punitive benefit sanctions. The current flagship welfare project, universal credit (UC), has as a primary reform purpose making work pay, yet this is being undermined by the parallel austerity programme even before full implementation. 

Embedded assumptions 

The entrenched trajectory, which has such a powerful hold, means that some prognostications for the future vitality of public management and governance appear too sanguine.  

Within a renewed institutional framework, this is not to deny that the policy instruments and management strategies deployed will need to be more nimble – and leaner – than those characterising earlier eras of top-down statism, or Whitehall public service micro-management. However, as things stand, the gulf between politics and the public on mainstream education, health and housing provision grows ever wider.

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