Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Opaque Public Services?

The Open Public Services white paper, published this week, demands a response.

I'll pass on the obvious stuff, such as the unfortunate timing in a week when Southern Cross and News International demonstrate the risks of private sector control, and also the argument that the White Paper is long on aspirations but much shorter on practical implementation. I'll even hold fire on the point that those with personal budgets are being advised by precisely the organisations who stand to lose when their services are opened up - though this is certainly an issue.

Some of the claimed links with other government initiatives are also very tenuous. It suggests for example that higher university fees are all about increased student choice (silly me for not realising this). But this too we will let pass for now.

No, what really disappoints me is that a White Paper all about change and innovation is written in such a traditional and uninspiring way. It's all as top-down as ever:

  • government sets the agenda and defines the types of services to be opened up

  • government decides the parameters and establishes commissioning arrangements

  • government oversees the regulatory regime

  • government anticipates the difficulties and decides how support should be funded

and so on.

Here are just three alternative suggestions to the government if they are genuinely committed to opening up public services:

1. Have someone other than a civil servant write the White Paper. It's all about open public services, so why not start here?

2. Write it from the perspective of those you are trying to engage. For example, instead of chapters on individual services, neighbourhood services and commissioned services, the headings should be:

  • opportunities for SMEs

  • opportunities for voluntary organisations

  • opportunities for individuals and sole traders

  • opportunities for social enterprises

  • opportunities for people already working in the public sector to take over the services they run

3. Finally, present a realistic 'force-field' type analysis that properly explores the obstacles to progress and how these can be overcome, rather than the superficial and vaguely hopeful coverage the White Paper currently gives these. Hearts, minds and attitudes need to change, and this certainly won't be achieved by stipulating a 25% target for government contracts to SMEs, still less by having senior politicians presenting awards for innovation.

As Juran (I think) said, "if you always do what you've always done, then you'll always get what you've always had". Without some much more radical thinking and true innovation, the government's Open Public Services agenda is going nowhere.


Check my web site at for more information and ideas.