From political rhetoric to implementation: ten top tips to make Big Society work
Professor Peter Latchford, CEO of specialist consultants to the public sector Black Radley
The Prime Minister has described the concept of Big Society as: “… a guiding philosophy… a society where the leading force for progress is social responsibility, not state control…[and where] … government [is] more accountable.” The objective is clear and correct, so the challenge is not to define ‘Big Society’, but how to achieve it. So how does political rhetoric become practical reality?
1. Foster the UK’s natural ability for enterprise
The UK has a proud history of enterprise, both individual and civic. The Big Society concept should be about enterprise. It’s about getting things done; about citizens making the most of their lives; about bringing new vigour into the economic, social and civic life of the country and shaking off old habits. Most of all, it’s a focus on finding new ways of building a better, more vibrant future.
2. Embrace a new way of thinking
The prevailing public sector mind set emphasises prescription and control. It results in inflexible services, expensive management systems, and widespread disillusion. We need new ways of thinking about service design and delivery, which allow error and risk into the system – and, as a consequence, better and leaner services. To be enterprising is to be pragmatic.
3. Get comfortable with shared responsibility
Where everybody takes responsibility for playing their part, everyone’s well-being improves. But to take responsibility, a person has to be free to decide. If all decisions are taken for you, you are not fully responsible, you cannot be enterprising, and you will not flourish. At the heart of Big Society implementation must be the principle that public service decisions need to be taken as close as possible to the person they are there to support.
4. Recognise that there are different types of public service decision, each requiring a distinct approach
Involvement based services, where the users’ individual involvement in the decision around service delivery is as important to their well-being as is the service itself. There are many examples. Young people need to be involved in deciding what youth services they receive. Mental health patients do better when involved in decisions about their own care. Communities need to be involved in the development of local land use plans. The service design and delivery should put an emphasis on the relationship with the user, and the users should be given collective responsibility for driving up service quality through peer group communication (akin to hotel ratings websites, or Wikipedia).
Joined up services, where the needs of the individual customer are complex and service alignment is as important as the functionality of one of the services. A doctor may simply treat a child’s bruising, or she may work with social services, education, the police and others to establish whether there are wider issues of abuse and chaos in the household. This joining up is not achieved by managers organising meetings. It happens when front line folk are encouraged to have a strong sense of their professional values, and are given the space to make human connections with people in other disciplines.
Technical, where a specialist understanding, and infrastructure, is needed for the service to be provided. Service delivery should be tightly controlled in-line with a pre-defined specification based on an expert assessment of need. Quality will be maintained by a robust management process based on hard performance measures and benchmarks. Most public servants know all about this approach – it is (wrongly) assumed to be the right model for all service management. It is clearly crucial to how an appendix operation is conducted, or a sewage system introduced – but it is not the whole story.
Framework, where there are decisions to be made concerning priorities and resource allocations; where there are difficult choices between models of service delivery; and where robust responses are required to underperformance. Activities under this heading are principally political, and should put an emphasis on examining, evaluating and deciding on the balance between competing priorities. To achieve the fairness imperative, and to enhance the well-being of all our citizens, the key test is the extent to which focus is given to those most in need. And quality control is through the democratic process.
Each service, or aspect of a service, can be categorised under one of these headings in line with how decisions should best be made about design and delivery. These different types of decision need to be taken by different people, supported in very different ways.
5. Take a new approach to quality control
Service quality results from adopting the right approach to understanding the need; designing a suitable response; reporting on performance; responding to performance issues; and dealing with risk and failure. Currently, there is a tendency for UK public service planners and managers to give particular emphasis to the technical or managerial approach where, in many cases, this “systems paradigm” does not result in improved service levels or efficiency. Public sector productivity has actually declined in recent years, with problems of service delivery failure commonplace. There are alternative ways of ensuring good service quality, through market forces, professional standards, and peer review.
6. Drive efficiency through new perspectives
Efficiency results from measuring performance in the right way; allocating costs in the right way; using information to challenge delivery and drive innovation; recognising the wider and overlapping impact of different service areas; and seeing opportunities to invest and prevent, as well as to contain or cure.
Existing approaches to public sector efficiency tend to be too narrowly drawn with a crude “bangs per buck” philosophy based on the number of outputs achieved per pound spent. This narrow measure has some management utility. But the best and most enterprising results can be achieved not by spend but by investment – particularly soft assets, like the strength of connections between people in a place. It is a measureable fact that the stronger this “social capital”, the lower the crime, the better the educational, health and economic outcomes. It is simpler and cheaper to prevent problems than to cure them. Prevention requires investment in things that are known to work, before the problems arise
Again, the standard approach to efficiency/value for money may have application for decisions of a technical nature. But to ensure better use of public funds, different perspectives are required for decisions of the other three types.
7. Focus on fairness
Fairness is not an additional burden on the public sector; it is why we have a public sector. Delegated decision-making is central to the Big Society theme and the civic enterprise interpretation of it. But delegated authority can lead to factional decision making and unfair consequences. It is therefore essential for the political decisions to include a fairness framework, ensuring that decisions, regardless of level, are taken in a way which maintains a sense of fairness, and accountability for fairness, across the public sector.
8. Bring it all together in a coherent way people can understand
The Black Radley approach to Big Society makes it clear that we have no ideological commitment to any particular model of service delivery. Indeed, we see that such a commitment would obstruct the enterprising spirit we want to encourage.
This approach offers new opportunities for existing service providers – be they private, public and non for profit – to demonstrate their effectiveness against the different service type headings. The approach also presents an opportunity to the community itself, and to the not for profit organisations that spring from it, an opportunity to offer new business models for investing in social capital and at the “involvement-based” level of services.
This approach is also a challenge to ourselves, to the politicians, managers and front line staff, to engage better, to cooperate better, to manage better – or to get out of the way and let someone else do it more effectively.
9. Prepare to pay in the short term for long term savings
A stronger, fairer society is less dependent on public support, and prevention is not only better and more effective, it is also cheaper.
However, the process of changing to the new approach will not be without cost. A variety of financial mechanisms must be utilised to support this radical new thinking, determined by the specific issue being addressed. These include: releasing resources through cost cutting and targeting; releasing management and bureaucratic overhead by halving the number of targets, halving the number of managers, and emphasising quality control through professional standards and peer assessment; transferring assets to the community (for example, using buildings to act as a catalyst for greater voluntary activity, and allowing communities entrepreneurially to generate revenue to pay for mutual support, in a way public sector agencies cannot); prudential borrowing against future revenue streams (using loans to support place programmes to deliver improvements in educational outcomes/obesity/re-offending etc – and paying the loan repayments out of the reduced costs of future education/health/crime budgets); working with social enterprise, charities and the private sector to develop such prevention programmes, and helping them secure funding through, for instance, social impact bonds (where the return on the investors’ cash is paid if the programme achieves its objectives and is paid a results bonus from public funds) or charitable endowments.
10. Stay true to the four principles of Big Society implementation
Pragmatism. The Parent/Child attitude of the public sector towards the citizen obstructs a move towards the Adult/Adult approach which is needed.
Decisiveness. The worst 10% of performance in any service setting should be removed every year. Public services are not a game, they have a direct effect on the life chances, well-being and even length of life of the citizen. In the current financial climate, we should not tolerate freeloading.
Culture Change. The central intent should be to create catalysts for a culture change towards responsibility and enterprise by returning to the principle of absolute respect for people who get things done: in business, in the community, and in public service.
Governance. Devolving responsibility can lead to its abrogation. In order for the civic enterprise model to be successful, considerable emphasis must be put on the governance and accountability of any organisation that makes decisions on behalf of others, or delivers public services on behalf of the public purse. Profit should be suppressed, but it should be transparent.