Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

‘Listen’ is always good advice

‘Listen’ is always good advice. Listen to those who deliver outstanding public services, is extremely good advice. And this excellent pamphlet shows why; there is so much good work for us to learn from.

The message is not unexpected. Have you ever met a frontline worker who wished central government would get more involved in delivering their service? Have you ever met a member of the public who believed services would be enhanced if they were run directly from Whitehall? Innovation and service improvement are always generated at the grassroots.

The excellent interview with Jayne Moules gives ample evidence of this grassroots innovation. Building a team of professionals around the family is an excellent way to break down inter-departmental and interagency silos. Recruiting volunteers, but drawing them directly from the impacted community, is a classic example of utilising local knowhow. Even dumping the word ‘troubled’ from the Troubled Families Initiative shows an instinctive empathy with residents, which is clearly beyond the Whitehall mandarins.

But the interview also showcases the challenges faced by local innovators. Jayne notes that the ‘very prescribed outcomes per family’ were initially extremely challenging, before she came to see them as a means to break down silos. Others might feel that this represents central government refusing to truly let go.

The real test is what happens next. The Troubled Families Initiative is a clearly defined, centrally created programme. Although very important, it is dwarfed in size by councils’ statutory responsibilities in areas such as fostering and adoption, child protection and the early years. Does the appetite exist to unleash local innovation in these services?

It is important not to backlash too much against a strong centre: sometimes central direction is imperative. Sure Start is a great example. Without the firm hand of a reforming government, would we have seen over 4,000 Sure Start centres open in less than a decade?

Furthermore, there is always the difficult question of what happens if things go wrong? ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom’ is an inspiring slogan, but what if they do not bloom – what if weeds choke them? Jim McMahon makes the strong argument that ‘what we need to do is decide what country we want, and what standards we want, and then empower more communities to innovate, to deliver that.’ This is close to the model to the model Jayne Moules is working in where central government determine ‘what’ outcomes need to be achieved and councils are left to decide the ‘how’.

This approach does not sit easily with our current national discourse. As Liz Kendall and Steve Reed note, ‘making the case for change is always hard’. When you cannot answer the question ‘what will you do about problem X?’ with a firm, national promise, it becomes harder still.’ Arguing for local innovation is easy – until a service encounters problems and you face an angry user on the doorstep. Then the instinct is to call for national intervention.

In truth there is no dichotomy between the centre and the frontline, they will always be intimately linked. We need a model of service delivery which liberates the frontline innovation showcased in this pamphlet, but which does so in partnership with a strong centre. This centre should be a guarantor of excellent services, intervening early when necessary. It should be an incubator for local creativity and a national disseminator of the best ideas. It feels as though we are still a long way off this.

This pamphlet shows there is an abundance of creativity on the frontline. We now need a renaissance of creativity at the centre. The dynamic frontline deserves a dynamic centre.

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Michael Pavey is deputy leader of the London borough of Brent and director of Labour Friends of Sure Start. He tweets @MikeyPavey

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Read the full interview between Liz Kendall MP, Steve Reed MP and  Jayne Moules online here

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 Photo: Steve Cadman

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