Services to the public and a new role for business

SiG Note: This article was originally published on the Conferedation of British Industry’s Public Services Network forum on 1 October, 2014 and on Collaborate on 13 October, 2014. It has been cross-posted with permission from the authors.

Lord Victor Adebowale

Public services is too narrow a concept to capture the shift that government and the policy world need to make. Instead, we need to be talking about ‘services to the public,’ and re-thinking all of our roles within a new delivery landscape.

This might not sound controversial, but the consequences are. They could re-shape the public services market and the role of business in society. Here are three reasons why, three starting points for reform, and three things business should be doing about it.

1. The Landscape is getting more complex

The operating context for public services is becoming increasingly complex — both in terms of the scope of social need and demand, and the means through which these needs can be addressed. Our work with the Institute for Government found that, in areas of multiple or complex social need, commissioning arrangements are often undermined by a lack of proper citizen engagement and can be distorted by payment mechanisms that one provider called “blunt instruments” designed to control cost and shift risk to the detriment of citizens. Those with the most complex and pressing needs can be affected most.

2. Managing demand needs a whole-of-market approach

Our research suggests that around 75% of citizens think that government has a role to play in improving living standards, finding a decent place to live, and being in meaningful work. Yet government is only one player in a diverse market, and traditional service solutions are clearly not enough. We need to work across the sectors to find better ways of meeting demand upstream, with business in particular playing a stronger and more socially aware role supporting employment, mobility, and new enterprise within communities. The JRF’s Julia Unwin argues that the high street is, in some senses, becoming the new front-line of public services. She points to a broader truth about our shared responsibility for identifying and meeting social need.

3. We aren’t even getting to first base with the public

Citizen engagement is both absolutely essential and frequently misunderstood. Our research with Ipsos MORI shows that only 14% of citizens feel they have a stake in the public services they receive, and only 24% felt their needs are regularly met. We should be depressed about these findings. Yet they should not just only be a spur to service improvement — a majority feel that the way people are treated is just as important as (and indeed intrinsic to) the outcome. In the wake of scandals in the public services market, business must take a lead in embedding values of dignity and respect in the delivery of public services.

These issues are fundamental  —  they get to the root of what a service to the public should feel like and what the role of business should be in delivering them. Values, respect and an absolute focus on citizens and communities are vital. How can we incentivise this?

 

Here are three starting points:

1. Create proper platforms for citizen-driven commissioning

We cannot effect demand management, behaviour change or collaborative commissioning without real insight into the needs, wants, assets and aspirations of communities, with citizens themselves leading this process. Creating the right conditions and methodologies to do this is a vital first step which the public sector should lead, learning from smart emerging practice in places as diverse as Oldham, Suffolk, Derbyshire, Wiltshire, Haringey and Sunderland.

2. Prepare ourselves to collaborate better

We don’t pay enough attention to our readiness to collaborate – and this is a crucial barrier to making it happen in practice. We frequently prioritise structure over culture. In the health service for example, it is curious that far less attention has been afforded to the individual and collective valence of clinicians, managers and public leaders to work together. Without this, structural change will struggle to change cultures and frontline practice — something Collaborate will be addressing in our forthcoming Health Collaboration Lab.

3. Encourage future leaders to think across sectors

Collaborating in public services requires a different form of leadership – less command and control, more adaptive and distributed, and more attuned to the need for give and take without complete control. This is well-trodden ground in theory, and in the private sector. For the public sector (in which management and risk is undoubtedly more complex), adopting this stance in a period of extreme uncertainty is difficult. Yet we are seeing emerging examples in local government and much enthusiasm for the value of ‘leading across the sectors’, as a recent Collaborate report with the Clore Social Leadership Programme sets out.

Dr Henry Kippin

So far so consensual (though hardly widespread), and no doubt something business can sign up to. But like most collaborations that have value, there is an inherent stickiness too. Acknowledging and addressing this will be a true marker of the willingness of public service businesses to lead a new, values-driven way of delivering.

Businesses need to re-think their responsibilities to the public upon which they rely.

Enjoying the patronage of the public is not something that should be taken lightly. Citizens value dignity, treatment and respect as well as outcomes, and it is not enough for organisations delivering services to the public to say “we weren’t contracted to do that,” or “we just deliver.” Shared responsibility means holding ourselves to account on principles of inclusiveness, re-distribution, fiscal integrity and public value. The best businesses will (and do) embrace this agenda, just as the public and social sectors should too.

There are important implications at different levels. At the macro level, the CBI is right to call for a culture of transparency and honesty about public service contracting and delivery — particularly as the unintended consequences of poor contracting decisions in some big areas of public spending become apparent.

At the local level, businesses can and should be stepping up to the plate to be part of a more collaborative growth setup — working far more obviously with local authorities, skills and education providers, and the social sector in communities. And at the micro level, there is a clear need to create closer, more engaged and more co-productive relationships with citizens, playing out at ground level the values we espouse in the boardroom.

Better relationships between business, state and society must be at the heart of our future model of services to the public. But let’s not wait for the perfect roadmap to be drawn out in Whitehall. The best of the private sector will make value-driven change happen now, and we are supporting them in their efforts to do it.

Listen to Lord Adebowale speak at our last CBI Public Service Network event:

Social sector innovation report highlights opportunity but lacks specificity

I first heard about the paper When Bees Meet Trees from Tim Draimin, who heads up the Social Innovation Generation National team.  He thought the article, which explores how large social sector organizations can help scale social innovation, would be of interest and asked me to share a few thoughts.  Little did Tim know that I would write several paragraphs critiquing the paper!

I had the feeling that the term ‘social innovation’ was used in this paper very broadly and loosely to apply to almost any change in the social context, in social service delivery or within a social organization.  To give just one small example, the paper cites as a major innovation the inclusion of hearing aids on the list of items covered by the National Health Service in the UK. Granted, this is an excellent and very welcome policy shift.  But is it a social innovation? (see the SiG knowledge hub for a definition of social innovation)

trees_and_bumble_bees_by_psithyrus-d4fi051

c/o Blair

Any term can become almost meaningless if it is employed too loosely and is applied to characterize virtually any type of change.  I believe that there is a need for more conceptual clarity around the notion of social innovation.  For example, there is not a clear distinction made in this paper – or in conversations more generally − between the concept of social innovation, (characterized by durability, impact and scale) and social sector innovation.  The latter is less broad and represents one subset of the former concept. I had some difficulty with the paper advising the social service sector to embrace social innovation because it was written in such general terms. The paper’s call to “engage with social innovation, and commit at a leadership and business planning level to trying to support social innovation reach scale” needs to be better explained.

The paper does set out a very helpful list of how-to’s for enabling social sector innovation but it should make a conceptual distinction between internal organizational innovations and substantial qualitative innovations in service delivery.  For example, there are innovations within organizations in terms of how they communicate; how they raise funds and finance their operations; how they learn and communicate with their members; and how they train their staff.  However, these internal changes may not change the methods or interventions they employ to deliver their services.  Presumably, social sector innovation implies at least a disruptive shift in service delivery and, ideally, a change in organizational processes as well. Sarah Schulman’s work in Australia focuses on profound changes in service delivery, which then lead to internal organizational shifts.

Additionally, the distinction between organizational incremental change and radical change to approaching a problem is not well made.  Organizational changes are often made by modifying the current procedures in place.  They start with the status quo and build up from there.  These shifts are primarily process-based.  Disruptive changes, by contrast, start with an identified problem and ask what needs to be done to tackle the challenge more effectively. These changes are mainly outcomes-based.

It also seems to me that the impetus for disruptive change may have to come from some place outside existing organizations (e.g. a lab or the “bees,” like small innovative organizations).  The large social sector organizations or “trees” typically will not select new methods that end up cutting themselves down.  The bees have an important role to play in stirring up the pot.

Finally, I believe that another conceptual disaggregation is required.  The social sector itself is not a monolith.  It actually comprises a wide range of generic interventions that apply to many groups within the population (e.g., affordable housing; training) and group-specific interventions (e.g., persons with disabilities; children in care).  I am not sure whether the to-do list set out in this paper is equally applicable to all these components.

Although there is a need to break down the silos within the social sector, I think this has to be done from a different starting point than what the paper advocates. The shift should start from the community rather than the organizations currently involved in service delivery.  The latter tend to be in survival rather than experimental mode.  Current funding structures don’t encourage the required experimentation. Consequently, profound shifts likely will not come from within the organizations themselves. They will feel comfortable engaging in a few upgrades and modifications to their internal processes.  While important, that is not what disruptive change is all about. Small nimble organizations and the broader community offer the most promising spaces for radical innovation.

Editor’s note: read Sherri Torjman’s post on the role of innovation ecosystems in enabling good ideas to take root.