Features: March 24th, 2011

This vision of what the public service landscape may look like in 2020 has been compiled by Roger Britton who is with Worcestershire County Council. It is the outcome of discussions with people involved in public service across the country and of collaboration with Local Government Improvement and Development. There is much scope for debate about the detail of the vision but what is really important is to figure out what needs to be done now to prepare the workforce and organisations for the future which will probably look something like the vision set out in the following paragraphs. Your views on what needs to be done will be most welcome. Please email: editor@publicnet.co.uk.

On the eve of the coronation of King William V it seems appropriate time to reflect on the massive changes in public services we have experienced over the last ten years. The remarkable transformation from the budget dependency of the centralised delivery of standardised services through a series of autonomous organisations each fighting their own corner; to the mixed economy of local delivery and personal control where the conjoined forces of civil society form the locus of political and practical power.

It is strange that we would one have been surprised by the thought of travelling with a volunteer driver on a community enterprise bus to visit a relative in the Tesco Care Hotel before getting home to join a group of volunteers clearing the autumn leaves from the pavement. How exciting that the pejorative term “post code lottery” has been replaced by the universally applauded “community driven difference”.

How quaint now the notion of public services being “delivered” to the community. Today it’s only pizzas that get delivered. Public service is a universal responsibility and where paid specialists are needed to help create social good they come from a range of different organisations scaled to be fit for particular purposes defined by the local community and translated into policy by their elected representatives.

Of course the Hospital Trust still employs surgeons and the elected Police Chief has her team of specialist Police Officers, but much work is now done by the new generic Public Service Workers, some paid, some volunteers, working under the aegis of locally focussed and managed organisations some of which are employee owned mutuals, some social enterprises, some commercial businesses and so on.

The one thing these workers have in common is a deep understanding of their commitment to civil society through the renaissance of the old fashioned notion of a public service ethos. Attitudes fostered through their support infrastructure which also relieves local organisations, which have better things to do, of the transactional business of contracts, payroll, insurance pensions and the like.

Not that the last ten years have been an easy ride. The emergence of ethical and selfless leadership; the culling of those who bicker about whose money is spent on services and forget that it’s all the same money in the end; the steadily increasing invisibility of organisational boundaries, the culture shift of pragmatic decision making to the front line and the realignment of accountability did not always come easy. But the burning platform of the drastic reductions in public expenditure in 2010 – 2014 broke the old mould and demanded a new paradigm.

So what are the key characteristics of the public service workforce of 2020:

• The term workforce includes all those who are seeking to achieve social good and includes paid staff, volunteers, trainees and active citizens associated with a range of organisations – public, private, community, charity, social enterprise, mutual etc.
• Whist there remain professional specialists the hand-off points have been redefined with real authority in the hands of generic workers who can call the professional to account.
• Performance management forms an instinctive part of each workers brief, self evidently vital because how else would they know if you were getting it right? But this is performance against outcomes – input, process and output is just how you get there.
• Technology enables the devolution of decision making and the democratisation of information – not just to workers but directly to responsible citizens.
• The transactional business of employing people and supporting volunteers and trainees is seen as a commissioned service bought in from a number of franchised agencies. This leaves the local organisations to get on with their core business.
• Work is seen as an outcome focussed activity not a process focussed place and the nine to five day no longer holds sway. This has however led to the need to avoid self-exploitation and maintain the social discourse of work activity.

The journey to this involved the following changes. Some were straightforward and easily achieved whilst others only came about after some struggle.

• The creation of real interpersonal and interorganisational trust between all those organisations and individuals seeking to achieve social good through public service by driving a transformational change in the tone and style of partnership organisations and the creation of safe places where challenging ideas could be explored. This change was a pre-requisite to all the others.
• The establishment of a common and simple dataset which allowed an analysis of the demographics of the entire public service workforce.
• The simplification of terms and conditions across all sectors, not in a big bang approach which would have been such a big challenge that nobody would have been brave enough to tackle it, but in a pragmatic and opportunistic way driven by a clear vision of what was needed.
• A new covenant with the Trade Unions which recognised the important formative role they had to play in building the new workforce but did not bind them to abandon the specific interests of their members in practical cases.
• A redefinition of the “professions” and the boundaries of competence between different types of worker with the locus of control resting with those generic workers closest to the community.
• The creation of infrastructure organisations to deliver the transactional services needed for employment, training and support which freed delivery organisations to focus on their core business and allowed the flourishing of personal care solutions.
• The use of the “pension’s black hole” crisis to create a properly structured, affordable and attractive pensions scheme which could be used across public service and the pragmatic implementation of that scheme.
• The use of the Cabinet Office paper on staff transfers to provide an authoritative and clearly supported approach not only to transfer arrangements but also to the delivery of sensible terms and conditions.
• The cultural change, leveraged through intensive national and local efforts and applying to society at large not just employment, which saw the decline of the “no fee no win” scrabble for compensation, knee-jerk litigation, health and safety jobsworths, I know my rights, “they” should do something about this and general risk aversion.
• The statutory changes necessary to facilitate all this.