A community approach to public service reform

Over the last year, the concepts of localism and devolution have grown to become increasingly important in the lexicon of the political class. This, in the main, is in response to communities nationwide crying out for more control over their own affairs.

Yet the fact remains that British governments of all political colours have all been guilty of hoarding power, preferring prescription, guidance and legislation to seek change, rather than empowering community leaders. This has resulted in a weary electorate becoming disillusioned and disconnected with how government interacts with them in the delivery of public services.

But a common consensus has now emerged and solidified within Westminster: Whitehall rarely knows best. It is acknowledged that policy diktats dispatched by government departments are no guarantee of efficient and effective delivery of public services.

Conversation has now turned to the ‘how’ of localism and devolution and not the ‘if’.

We have seen the Conservative’s awkwardly grapple with their ‘big society’ concept, which, rather than heralding a changing role for the state, sought to remove the state altogether from public services.

That experiment failed.

Thus, this week’s launch event of Liz Kendall and Steve Reed’s excellent pamphlet – ‘Let it Go – Power to the people in public services’ – has come at a particularly timely moment in British politics.

A knowledgeable panel discussed how the role of public services in community life has changed profoundly over the seventy years since Labour established the National Health Service and the welfare state in 1945. Long gone are the days when individuals would be the passive user of the health or social care system. Now more than ever, it is the needs of the individual that must be front and centre of successful public services.

Across the entire spectrum – be it in enabling the social worker to introduce the changes needed to improve family dynamics, providing the mental health patient with a personalised budget to improve their standard of living or supporting local mothers to tackle crime and gang culture in their neighbourhood – there were powerful testimonies aplenty illustrating the readiness individuals and communities to harness their local knowledge and insights to provide effective solutions to local challenges. And, significantly, often at a much lower cost than the local authority.

Indeed, as the discussion ensued, I was reminded of the famous Archimedes quote: ‘Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth’.

Because that is what communities seek: a place to stand so that they can strengthen their own neighbourhoods. By presenting itself as a partner, and not a master, or worse still, a disinterested bystander, for communities in facing their diverse and ever-changing needs, Labour can distinguish itself from the other parties to offer an exciting programme of public service reform.

The panel agreed that disbursing power to all of Britain’s communities, and not just the most affluent, empowering them to take control of their own destinies will take enormous leadership. Yet only Labour has shown it has the appetite to tackle the inequality of power that has gripped Britain for too long.

No future United Kingdom government can expect to successfully renew our public services without not only involving the people directly affected by them, but providing them a stake in how they are run.

Reshaping public services will not be easy. It will not be done in one term or by one department or one community. It will require a collaborative effort by all of Britain’s citizens.

2015 represents a profound opportunity to renew Britain’s public services in a way that is not only effective, but also just. Progressives can be thankful that the ‘Let it go’ pamphlet goes some way towards providing the ambition and leadership that Britain so desperately needs.

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Callum Anderson is a Labour activist and blogger. He tweets @Cavlar_Anderson

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If you missed the event you can listen back to the whole thing:

Liz Kendall MP and Steve Reed MP’s pamphlet Let it go: Power to the people in public services is available to download here. All articles relating to the pamphlet can be found here.

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Photo: David Sim

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