Abstracts: April 17th, 2012

This report from the Public Management and Policy Association is made up from papers by academics and practitioners which set out visions of where public services are going and how they might get there.

The report focuses on identifying the new skills that policy-making will require across all public services in an age of austerity under a new coalition government whose agenda requires a paradigm shift in the roles and relationships of central and local government, communities and citizens. It highlights the need for skills to change and evolve as government agendas, and the practical economic and social realities, change.

Challenge liberates innovation and rarely has the need for both policy-makers and operational managers to look outside their silo-boxes and learn new skills from other sectors been greater or more urgent. But the state must go further than enabling these opportunities. It must actively help people take advantage of them.

There are limits to managerial ‘technocracy’ and it is time to question whether its domination in the public sector is an altogether good thing. It is surely right to explore new, innovative and more humane ways of ensuring that complex social problems are addressed more effectively than they were in the past It is revealing that many of the most interesting community projects from the UK and around the world have been populated by imaginative, committed people who have developed ways of short-cutting bureaucracies, or just avoiding formal institutional service delivery structures altogether.

The energy and enthusiasm that was shown in the Total Place project showed the appetite for acknowledging that rigid, managerial, institutional solutions don’t always work when dealing with people with complex often highly personalized problems. The key to its early success was to create an environment for new ways of understanding human behaviour and responding to it in a humane way rather than through the prescribed technocratic processes by which organizations were measured as successful.

Empowered, committed individuals, prepared to deliver beyond what it says on their prescriptive business card will provide a more humane, client-focused approach to finding solutions for people. This must provide a greater opportunity for local politicians to move from seeing their role as mainly elected service managers, to one where councillors see themselves as community facilitators who provide strong, credible community leadership and are highly visible, but not necessarily responsible for service delivery.

Such new thinking will help us move from ‘place shaping’ with its connotations of desk-based dirigisme and five year plans, to community development. Knowledge empowers people, and through new social media we have the tools at our disposal to share information with communities on a scale never thought possible.

Challenge liberates innovation. This does not justify any national or local financial position. However, the constant demand to do more for less, exacerbated substantially by the era of austerity, is already stimulating new ideas and ways forward in face of the biggest challenges for generations.

MAKING POLICY IN AN AGE OF AUSTERITY is published by PMPA and can be downloaded here.