Headlines: July 12th, 2011

Public services of the future will be delivered in different ways. The reform White Paper ‘Open Public Services’ sets out the ambition to improve quality and give better value to the taxpayer. Regardless of whatever is achieved by this new reform agenda, it is clear that innovation will change governance, management and the way services are delivered.

The White Paper is based on the belief that where there are poor standards in public services today, they result from an outdated approach to organising services. The new approach is to increase choice, to decentralise, to open services to a range of providers, to provide fair access and to increase accountability.

Spending decisions will be moved down to the lowest possible level. Personal budgets will be extended to give more people greater control of the services they use. Neighbourhoods will have budgets and will be able to run services, such as libraries and to commission services. At the next level, every council will be able to use a community budget to allow the funding silos to be broken open to give the council and its partners the freedom to redesign services to meet the local need. Some centrally commissioned services, such as support for transport and the environment, are also likely to be brought into community budgets.

A key part of the drive to stimulate innovation and create more choice is changing the model of service delivery to create a purchaser – provider split and to open up the provider role to private companies, community and voluntary sector organisations and to mutuals created by public sector staff. Changing the model from the state providing services and creating the purchaser – provider split encourages new innovative providers to compete for contracts and allows for payment by results to be introduced. The White Paper gives an assurance that the new arrangements will rule out inviting tenders for the existing services and all potential providers will be able to share in the service design.

The reform agenda presents challenges for all concerned with public services. Councils will need to adapt and develop new capabilities. Councillors will have to learn how to exercise wider scrutiny powers. Parish, town and neighbourhood councils will have to get to grips with new responsibilities and wider powers. The challenge will be greater in urban areas where there are no neighbourhood councils at the moment.

Among those who will face the greatest challenge are the public sector staff who decide to form mutuals to deliver a service. The scale and difficulty of the change is recognised by the support to be offered. The pathfinder projects launched in August 2010 is mapping out potential approaches. A task force headed by Julian Le Grand is to be launched and a £10m support programme will be available from August 2011.

The reform agenda is designed to give people and communities the opportunities to shape services. The framework presented in the White Paper has many blank spaces which it is planned will be filled in by the end of 2011. The filling in process starts now with a period of listening, which continues until September. Most sections of the White Paper list questions to prompt viewpoints. When views have been distilled, a work programme to implement the agenda will be published. In November 2010 a plan will be published detailing how departments will take the ideas forward over the life of the Parliament. The plan will also include proposals for legislation.