It’s the scene in a movie. A tornado sweeps in, death and destruction rules , then the dust settles and the lucky survivors emerge with their families from their bunkers. Those who get to the bunkers survive, those without bunkers do not.
With everyone in the public sector resigned to the inevitable cuts in budgets and all the consequent threats to staff and services, there is a tendency for public servants to rush with their valuables to the bunkers – to protect core budgets and staff, as the budget storms blow. The consequence is that the damage is done to those services and service users that are left behind. And the risk we run is that the consequences are unfair: that the most needy suffer the most, and that social tensions and other problems go through the roof. This is not, unlike the tornado, a natural and inevitable phenomenon.
Over the last few months, there have been many thousands of meetings across the country, nervously anticipating budget cuts, examining options, selecting preferred responses. And few of those meetings will have show the required imagination and leadership. As more information emerges from Whitehall concerning the actual cuts, it is predictable that the hatches will be battened down to protect the orthodox ideas of what is important, rather than on some of the better innovations that did start to emerge during more prosperous times.
In times of plenty, with considerable additional funding from government, many local authorities experimented with new services and new forms of service delivery. These included neighbourhood management, town centre management and regeneration schemes, environmental wardens, job creation schemes, new affordable housing developments – some of which were highly effective. The successful ones did not do things to people (“interventions”); they recognised that the most sustainable solutions come when you help people take charge for themselves.
The problem with these “softer” approaches is that the successes are less immediate, less easily attributed to the programme itself, and less easily photographed for the front pages. They also don’t fit well with the masculine management orthodoxy of public services. Though the results of this approach – call it empowerment, co-production, community development, social capital, or (if you will) Big Society – are extraordinary, they are not as easily managed and justified as a top-down masterplan or a new housing development. So it is difficult to make the case for their continuation, even though the savings achieved, because they are all in the prevention game, are considerable.
These approaches, with the active support and leadership of local people, have been used to powerful effect in some of our most challenging settings: Lozells, Birmingham, for instance. This super-diverse area, home to people from 170 of the world’s 193 countries, has suffered from pronounced deprivation and social tension. But in the last three years, during which time there has been a concerted effort to take this more responsive approach, the areas has seen a significant drop in crime rates and an increase in the attractiveness of the area, as measured by the relative rise in house prices.
But what can we do? If the budgets have to be cut – which they probably do – then what alternative is there than to stop doing some things?
Well, the first thing to ensure is that we are stopping the right things, rather than those things which don’t sit well with the public sector comfort zone. There is too much happening the way it does because that is the way we have always done it. A brutal instrumentalism has not delivered results and must be replaced by a different, more relationship-oriented perspective.
And the second opportunity is to bring some innovative thinking to the way we do what we do. This means getting away from an obsession with optimising our in-year cash revenue and capital spend, and realising that there are revenue and capital budgets out there which dwarf even Labour’s public spending. I mean, of course, the whole voluntary and community economy which is not cash based, and the whole of the private sector economy, which is. The real question for public budgets is, How can they help to optimise the effectiveness of these wider systems? By freeing our public sector budgets from the constraints of the instrumentalist orthodoxy, we can spend smaller amounts on achieving more. We could even call it “Big Society”. The following are some examples.
Adopt-a-service campaign – This can be part of a general mobilisation campaign. Examples include neighbourhood managers, town centre managers, local libraries, park maintenance. Why not launch a campaign for public and business support to adopt some of these services? The recent campaign to secure the Staffordshire Hoard is a parallel example.
Set-up social enterprises – Instead of making staff redundant, why not use an equivalent expenditure to help them to set up social enterprises? Some will fail, but will have picked up powerful skills and attitudes on the way.
Transfer assets on licence to voluntary and community groups to use them to attract private sector funding to develop housing and other amenities and generate income to pay for some local services.
We are still one of the wealthiest societies on earth. We have learnt enough about human psychology and sociology to know that individual and general well-being (which is the purpose of public services) results not from cash but from a sense of purpose and from strong relationships. Why don’t we use our cash to support those things? The last place to find them is in the bunker.