Linda Jack writes: My solutions for improving public services

Yesterday I had my say about the concerns I have about the whole scale marketization of public services, so you are quite entitled to ask what would my solution be to the undoubted challenge to improve them?

Firstly – electoral reform coupled with a duty for local and public authorities to engage more meaningfully with the communities they represent. Involving service users as of right, in the design and delivery of services. I want to be able to elect both local and national politicians in a way that improves both their accountability to me but also their interest in doing a good job. All too many local councils are moribund because they are full of councillors who never have a serious challenge to their seat. Why would they bother to properly scrutinize the services they are elected to provide?

“The Big Society” concept promises more community involvement – while at the same time promoting, for example, Academies and Free Schools which will have precisely the opposite effect with central government taking control! The white paper bemoans the fact that politicians and bureaucrats rather than people make the decisions. But the fact is, we elect our local politicians to represent us the people! The alternative is a diminishing of democracy, a watering down of accountability and a return to a Victorian notion of the deserving and undeserving poor, where an unelected unaccountable elite make decisions that impact on the most vulnerable in our society. I know which I would prefer.

Secondly – a change of emphasis from competition to co-operation and collaboration. If we are serious about revitalising communities where possible we should recognise that communities are part of the solution. Locally grown voluntary sector organisations, in partnership with the local authority and yes, maybe even where appropriate the local private sector, have far more of a vested interest in serving their community than huge multi-nationals who can talk the talk but rarely walk the walk. What is the point, as happened in Luton recently, of ignoring a consortium of local charities and giving a contract to a national organisation, when the service will be delivered by the same people who will have to be TUPE’d over? Most people who work in frontline services and work for local charities do so because they have a deep commitment to the people they serve. They know their communities and actually have a vested interest in supporting them to thrive and prosper. And their communities  know and trust them (and if they don’t I would expect the locally elected and accountable representatives to be in touch enough to know that and do something about it).

And alongside a more collaborative and cooperative way of working will come a better analysis of and response to, the issues these services need to tackle, a local government of “all the talents” to coin a phrase!

Competition may be a positive way of working when you want the best quality widgets at the cheapest price – and the customer has a real choice – but it doesn’t have the answer in transforming communities. An example would be what has happened in care homes and care services. In order to be more efficient and competitive companies will cut corners, employ far too many agency staff, fail to train their staff properly and totally neglect the importance of continuity of care. If you want examples of this I have far too many to list here. In my own organisation, which has shifted its emphasis to being competitive in a competitive market, the old values around serving the public have been lost, rather than co-operating with others to ensure the people we serve get the best, we are now competing with them in order that we are the best.

Thirdly, investment in those delivering the service. We all too often forget that it is people who deliver and the people delivering who need to be empowered too. As Adam Fineberg points out in the Guardian:

The only way to ensure that the efficiency targets are met and resultant services are sustainable and transformed is to work with and through staff; engaging and empowering employees to deliver service redesign. Councils and their partners’ staff are the key to progress. They hold the key to unlocking the creative, collective potential of the Local Strategic Partnership and the council as a community leader.

There is a certainly a lot that the public sector can learn from the private sector, but there has to be a recognition of the different values base of both and the way that impacts upon decisions. The private provider may be able to run a call centre and deal with 50% more calls than the local authority ever did, but what does it lose in doing so? One example from my experience was a woman who had worked for social services for years and had dealt with one housebound man for 14 of those years. He knew and trusted her – he could call and get straight through to her and she often picked up other issues through talking to him that prevented more difficulties later down the line. When she was TUPE’d across to the new privately run super duper call centre – yes, she was able to deal with every call in her 30 second target – but at what real cost? And as for the housebound man, he just had to take who he was given.

Efficiency can actually be at the cost of effectiveness and can end up costing more in the long run. So why not organise more secondments both ways? Most corporates with CSR departments these days want to ensure volunteering opportunities for their staff when funding projects. Why not have a more strategic approach to this? Bring them in, within a local area to contribute not just their money but also their expertise. Often they want to get involved on the front line, helping in a youth club for example, but why not engage them in helping with some of those back office functions, or training staff, acting as consultants?

As you can see, I could wax lyrical on this issue for hours (!) and I am aware there is a section in the party who will baulk at everything I have said, but as I said yesterday, the fact is, conference has already thrown out moves to drive us into a marketized NHS, the party is bound to have problems with this proposed direction of travel.

So, my message to dear Nick and Danny is clear. You may personally buy all this Tory ideology but you are in grave danger of totally disconnecting from the party who put you into power in the first place. Frankly, listening to Danny on the Today programme this week I was at a loss to distinguish him from a Tory, if I can’t tell the difference how do we expect the electorate to?


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  • Tony Dawson 17th Jul '11 - 1:16pm

    ” electoral reform coupled with a duty for local and public authorities to engage more meaningfully with the communities they represent.”

    Doesn’t STV (unless constituencies have huge number of members) make it likely that a single councillor from each party from each area potentially has a ‘seat for life’ as that party nearly always exceeds quota, irrespective of whether their vote goes up or down quite substantially?

    I would think that AV, on the other hand, would give more encouragement to a ‘good’ candidate, from a similar but different party to a ‘slack’ incumbent, who might be more likely to make the challenger’s party the beneficiary rather than the donor of transfers.

  • @Andrew

    Basically everything she said differentiates her from Labour. Seriously, we had a Labour government until a year and a bit ago, compare what she suggests to their policies.

    It’s not as if not going along with Conservative neo-“liberal” thinking automatically means “Labour”.

  • Daniel Henry 17th Jul '11 - 4:41pm

    I largely agree with you vision.

    In the short run though, barely any of this would get by our coalition partners and in any case even if we had a majority then we wouldn’t want to institute these changes from Whitehall.

    A god compromise between us and the Tories would be one that allowed a council to make their own decisions. It would allow a Tory council to run according to Tory policy and a liberal council to run a liberal one.

    That would leave us free to demonstrate our policies where we run the council and perhaps win further elections if we are successful.

  • Tony Dawson 17th Jul '11 - 5:22pm

    Andrew, I think you are being unfair to Linda. She is, for instance against Acadamies and ‘Free(sic) schools’, both of which cost money. She wants effective local councillors. Does that cost money?

  • Simon McGrath 17th Jul '11 - 6:33pm

    Whats fascinating is the almost complete lack of substance. pR for local elections, great, exchanges with corporates, fine, but apart from those , few concrete ideas. You are in favour of voluntary groups although not if they want to run a school, which seems odd.
    In the example you give of the call centre, perhaps the fact that the private provider can answer 50% more calls means that money saved will go to improve other services.

    If this sort of thing is what you are putting forward on the Labour Party Cttee you are a member of then Ed M’s blank sheet of paper is going to stay blank for some time.

  • Chris Nicholson 17th Jul '11 - 7:19pm

    The solutions Linda sets out.
    Firstly electoral reform – yes all Lib Dems want that but it has just been rejected by the electorate, so we need to press on.
    Secondly, collaboration and co-operation not competition – well the White Paper states that it wants to encourage ‘multi-stakeholder mutuals’ ie collaboration and co-operation and the government is starting to promote this in areas such as offender rehabilitation.
    Thirdly we should invest in those delivering the service – the White Paper stresses the role that employee mutuals can and should play and encourages them through the “right to provide”.
    So the second and third things which Linda wants are set out in the White Paper and the first, for the moment, is sadly not available,
    On the positive side the White Paper’s guiding principles could be straight from a Lib Dem hymn sheet.
    Choice – wherever possible we will increase choice
    Decentralisation – Power should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level
    Diversity – Public services should be open to a range of providers
    Fairness – We will ensure fair access to public services
    Accountability – Public services should be accountable to users and taxpayers.
    I do not agree with everything in the White Paper but there are many issues which are ‘green’ rather than ‘white’, ie they are subject to consultation. So let’s respond to the White Paper in that spirit – constructively – rather than seeing it as another sign of betrayal by the party leadership.

  • David Allen 17th Jul '11 - 7:34pm

    This is a very polarised debate. The market zealots pay lip service to the possibility that successful in-house services could survive, but they know perfectly well that the systems they intend to create will ensure that they can not. The public sector unions pay lip service to efficiency and cost-effectiveness but are bound to act primarily to preserve jobs.

    Once upon a time, there existed a party called the Liberal Democrats which claimed to be able to see both sides of these arguments, which understood both the potential to improve efficiency through market competition and the risks posed by private providers motivated by profits rather than public service. What happened to them?

    Here are a couple of off-the-wall ideas which such a party might think to put forward, should it ever revive:

    (1). Academies should be subjected to regular “stress tests”. Those which are found to be failing either academically or commercially should revert automatically to local authority control. If we’re going to be tough on the public sector we should be just as tough on the private sector. Same for all “open public services”.

    (2). State monopoly and private monopoly are both bad. Private oligopolies such as the banks and supermarkets are pretty much just as bad as monopolies. The state should therefore set up, for example, one publicly owned chain of petrol stations in competition with the private operators. The next time the global oil price falls and the retail oil price does not, let’s see what the state company does.

    (3). The BBC is the best example we have of (2) above in practice. But we should also have a state-sponsored (but rigidly government-independent) daily newspaper to keep the rest honest.

  • Daniel Henry 18th Jul '11 - 8:18am

    @ Tony
    With STV, a party can potentially keep a seat safe by just keeping as many candidates as their expected quota but it’s generally agreed that the optimum strategy is to run an extra candidate in order to fight for an extra quota. This means the party will either fight an incredibly good campaign and increase their quota or at least one candidate won’t be winning their seat and the electorate will decide which one using their preferences.


  • Orange bookers Stephen W & Simon Mc Grath just don’t get it. By what logic or experience does Stephen consider that academies will be more accountable? There is only the percedent of the discarded Grant maintained policy which, in my personal experience required a letter from the ministry for the school to accept a student from a very deprived background. I am a councillor and I am committed to a good deal for the kids in my local authority. We employ equally committed professionals to monitor and support underperforming schools at the first signs of underperformance. Stephen’s remedy is to ‘get tough’ -great! It is often a management issue; the same management which is assumed to always know best. Alternatively one school in my Authority has elected to become a trust school administered from an indistrial park in Essex. This trust will be much more prescriptive that the LA ever was allowed to be. Gove is in the process of nationalising schools on the basis of comparisons with Sweden & Finland which are demographicallly different. He has no experiantial justification for this.
    I would have thought that the Thatcherite Compulsory Cometitive tendering of the Thatcher years might have given Simon McGrath at leas some food for thought. Linda’s analysis is spot on particularly the need for co-operation between Authorities and the private sector.

  • jenny barnes 18th Jul '11 - 9:26am

    I’d agree with Linda that the parliamentary party seems to have become totally disconnected from the rest of the party. The conference motions and votes still seem to me to be the party I joined – the behaviour of those in government looks like Tory auxiliaries. Maybe I’m in the wrong party, or maybe they are.

  • Why doesn’t Simon McGrath Know which schools are dire & why? I haven’t made an argument. I have quoted from 22 years worth of experience where an excellent LA (currently Tory but with a common committment to local government) works to improve its schools. In this system I and my colleagues are informed what is wrong in our schools and what support is in place to rectify the situation. It is clear that Simon doesn’t understand that schools or know the right questions to ask. Can I suggest that Simon rreads “The Spirit Level” which might give him a clue.

  • @Simon McGrath

    “Why are so many schools so dire then? ”

    Where is your evidence? What is your experience?

    You have neither, so what makes you think you are qualified to comment?

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