“We need to break away from a view of public services that focuses on the efficient and effective distribution of state resources and instead focus on the opportunities to improve people’s lives, wherever these opportunities exist and whoever is best placed to take advantage of them.”
These are the thoughts of Andrew Adonis, sometime Secretary of State for Transport but better known for his role as a leading adviser to Tony Blair during New Labour’s golden age, in the current edition of Ethos, a journal published by outsourced public service provider, Serco.
Adonis’s point is that currently public service delivery is based on public sector bodies getting an allocation of money and spending it providing as many blocks of useful public service as possible within the budget rather than starting from the point of having some desired outcomes then trying to find ways to achieve them.
Assuming that Adonis supported the previous government’s approach to public spending, this is an interesting shift in thinking. While New Labour was keen on increasing the role of non-state providers in some parts of the public sector, it was also equally keen on setting national output targets which meant that local public sector agencies often didn’t even get to make their own decisions on what efficient and effective distribution of state resources might be, let alone have the choice to engage in imaginative problem-solving approaches to services delivery.
Now, though, in the era of big cuts and Big Society, Adonis is clear that:
Whitehall can never know enough to manage every last detail and so should restrict its activities to those functions that require national-level decisions, co-ordination or facilitation. After that, it has to be for public sector leaders and managers, in close conjunction with local communities, to steer the most appropriate course.
Aside from the belief that spending should local leaders and managers should be in control. Adonis is clear that neither cost cuts or service cuts are the answer. The view is reinforced, in this article on LocalGov.co.uk from another former New Labour, Charles Leadbeater, is that we have arrived at a point where just doing public services cheaper and/or more efficiently – whether the provider is the public sector, the private sector, the voluntary sector or a social enterprise – is not going to be enough to meet the demands we face with the resources we have available.
In terms of what should be done, Adonis cites Homeshare as an example of an entrepreneurial approach to public service delivery. The basic idea of Homeshare is to match person A who needs some support to continue living in their own home, with person B who can provide that support and needs somewhere affordable to live. The service matches up people in the community with complementary resources and need, an alternative to the more expensive option of ongoing state-funded care to enable person A to remain at home living alone.
Interestingly, though Adonis doesn’t mention this, Homeshare is a way of doing things rather than an organisation. There is a charity called Homeshare International – and some local services are delivered by the voluntary sector – but there are also local Homeshare services delivered by council employees. The entrepreneurship is in the approach, it doesn’t necessarily depend on council employees setting up a social enterprise.
This is an idea that may be challenging to those in the social enterprise movement who are focused on as many services as possible being delivered by organisations called social enterprises. Equally challenging, though, is Adonis’s assessment of the big choices facing the public sector in the near future:
“The biggest risk over the next few years is that, as the public sector cuts bite, our public services will hunker down, retreating to their core mission and becoming more introspective. For example, local councils will focus on the statutory services they must, by law, provide, reducing support for exactly the kind of organisations that can help marshal resources from outside their immediate influence. Instead of greater introspection we should be looking far beyond traditional boundaries for opportunities to improve services.”
A major way that public sector employees can seek out entrepreneurial answers to local demand is by engaging more effectively with small organisations in local communities. In one of the sectors we work in, mental health, that means finding ways to support organisations that provide non-medical activities that make people’s lives more fulfilling and, in doing so, reduce their need to make use of mental health services. The danger in mental health, as Adonis outlines, is that the NHS will focus all its resources on delivering as much medical service provision as possible with its reduced resources but, in doing so, fail to protect the support structures in the community that help to reduce the demand on those services.
Ultimately, we are social entrepreneurs should be in the business of delivering the best social outcomes for everyone in our communities. There’s nothing wrong with spinning out public services into social enterprises – or public service delivery being contracted out to existing social enterprises – but it’s at least equally important that the large percentage of those delivering public services who remain in the public sector are enabled to be more socially entrepreneurial in the way they work.
As Andrew Adonis makes clear, it will need ‘a great exertion of the state’ to make that happen but social entrepreneurs are well placed to work with partners in the public sector to help the process along – and hopefully keep it focused on the social outcomes rather than the cost-cutting.