Letting it go: power in public service

This week’s event hosted by Progress and chaired by Jon Cruddas fielded an impressive array of speakers including Liz Kendall, shadow minister for care, Steve Reed and Lisa Nandy as well from within the not-for-profit sector, with Hilary Cottam, founder of Participle and Josh MacAlister, chief executive of Frontline contributing to the conversation.

‘Let it Go’ – both in name and message – felt particularly timely. It immediately followed the Labour-backed announcement that the government would be devolving a £6bn budget for health and social care provision to greater Manchester. This is part of a developing conversation on ‘double devolution’ – power transferring, not just from one layer of government to another, but also about how that power could transfer from government to citizens – with greater equality between citizens and the public services, and a narrative of relations and empowerment at its core.

To illustrate this, all the politicians spoke articulately about the ways that their residents, and members of their communities had faced barriers in accessing public services – the ‘computer says no’ approach – and of the ways in which the individuals delivering those services, particularly in the health and care sector, made a difference, empowering people to access those services. Liz Kendall noted that understanding that service users may know their needs best was challenging. Giving people more power and control in public services had instrumental value: being about better results – not just better value for money.

The extent to which speakers were in consensus at this event demonstrated one thing: that there is a narrative in favour of a more open, inclusive and participatory government, through which there is a genuine exchange between government and citizens – ‘the relational state’ model. An agenda for devolution is only a small part of a wider story and challenge; addressing a democratic deficit that has widened between the public and those that make decisions for the public, namely politicians, government and service providers. Lisa Nandy in particular spoke about the way in which ‘power that gets stuck at the town hall level is not really power at all’, as well as the need to introduce systemic accountability and transparency reforms to ensure all were included and felt part of the decision-making agenda.

This direction of travel has been emerging for some time. Just over a year ago I flagged the seeds of this narrative following from Cruddas’s speech to the New Local Government Network. Cruddas outlined the inequality of power between people and decision-makers as a major challenge to the creation of a sustainable British social democracy in line with William Beveridge’s principles.

If there was a challenge identified just over a year ago, it looks as if Labour politicians might be working through envisaging what the solutions might look like. ‘Let it Go’ was a good opportunity to reflect on where we might be headed. Opening the space withinthe institutions for participation might be part of that agenda. As Hilary Cottam flagged, rethinking the design of public services so that they offered citizens the opportunity to participate would be essential to that. ‘In the 1950s, our public services were not built on participation. But they cannot be left unchanged today,’ she urged.

It is increasingly clear that a new vision for an inclusive politics cannot be limited to the scope of public service delivery. They have got to be about much more than that for deep-rooted and lasting change throughout the system that works for people to take place. ‘The Conservative’s big society was just about rolling back the state. We are the party who understands the need to change the state’, said Steve Reed, who also spoke of the need to shape a more ‘open Labour party to shape a new politics of empowerment’. That places any political party in government in a de facto uncomfortable position – recognising the need to introduce transparency and accountability reforms pushing against the pressures of short-termism. But it is a position our members of parliament seemed fairly comfortable with going forward.

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Reema Patel is a councillor in the London borough of Barnet and secretary of Fabian Women’s Network. She tweets @ReemaSPatel

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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: Stephen Douglas

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