Phone-hacking might have been the only show in town for the last few weeks, but public service reform shouldn't be forced to take a backseat.
By Nick Carey
The government launched its much anticipated public service reform white paper – Open Public Services – earlier this month to a press conference alas somewhat overshadowed by the phone-hacking controversy.
Setting out the coalition's five principles of reform (greater choice, appropriate decentralisation, a range of providers, fair access to services and increased accountability to users and taxpayers) the paper outlined the direction of travel across the broad sphere of public services. The language and thrust of the paper is positive for the third sector and could provide a range of opportunities for it to engage in a significantly greater level of public service provision – the strengths of the sector in delivering more effective, person-centric services to the most marginalised in society resonate with many of the proposals contained in the paper.
However, whilst the direction and tone of the paper is promising, its success will hinge on successfully overcoming the vested interests within the current commissioning systems to level the playing field and producing some concrete proposals for individual departments. Encouragingly in this vein, the paper committed the government to keeping the VAT barriers to service provision under review and confirmed a response to the Fair Deal consultation is due out in the coming couple of months. Addressing both issues will be vital in turning this rhetoric into reality for many third sector organisations.
The paper explicitly states that the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector should not bear a disproportionate level of public funding cuts and the prime minister and deputy prime minster will recognise the ten local authorities that are most supportive of the sector annually. Will this recognition be enough though for local authorities facing 28% cuts over the parliament? The key to success must be to break down silos and empower commissioners to fund the most appropriate and effective services.
The third sector can deliver a range of highly effective services that draw on its rich history and experience. St Giles Trust, for example, recently demonstrated that every £1 invested in one of their projects directly saves the state up to £32 and can reduce reoffending by an extra 40%. There is significant scope to deliver better outcomes for service users and, with reoffending costing £11 billion per year, savings to the state.
The sector is also excellent at tackling entrenched and expensive inter-generational problems (eg Addaction's 'Breaking the Cycle' service) as well as delivering innovative services that pull together a range of outcomes that commissioners would never be able to construct within existing frameworks (eg BTCV's Green Gyms). By empowering commissioners and overcoming the vested interests we have real potential to create a revolution in our public services. However, this requires direction and real leadership from the centre which makes the greater clarity from individual departments promised by November critical.
The listening process over the summer will give individual departments the opportunity for solid proposals to be developed in consultation with interested stakeholders. It is critical that this opportunity is not missed and that the momentum behind the white paper can be harnessed in creating real and much-needed reform to our public services to deliver better results.
Nick Carey is a policy officer at the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. He leads ACEVO's policy work on governance, financing and regulatory issues for the third sector.
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