Notes from the Guardian Public Services Summit 2010

Broad Themes

  • Times are going to be very tough, and it will be a tough time to be a public sector leader … (but)
  • There are tremendous opportunities to do things better, differently …(though)
  • We will need to create space for risk-taking…. (and)
  • Many solutions will rely on the more sophisticated use of the third sector and social enterprises …
  • Which will require a significant rethink of procurement.

Specific Sessions

Paul Martin, formerly Canadian Prime Minister and Finance Minister at the time, between 1993 and 1998 that Canada eliminated a very large public sector debt (which seemed relevant!).  They did this by (a) engaging the public in the reasons for tough choices – ie that it would directly affect them and their future rather than eg because the capital markets were telling them to, and showing that they had a highly credible plan which hit its milestones (b) setting tough targets quickly that were reasonably well informed (Paul Martin got two-three experts in a room and got them to come up with departmental savings targets, which ranged from 10-65%) (c) sharing the pain – no department was ringfenced (interesting to compare this with current political declarations which are ringfencing eg NHS) and anybody who didn’t think their target was fair had to persuade cabinet colleagues to take the cut instead (and there was a degree of dealing around this, at the margins) (d) sharing the beneft – after the savings came through they launched a major education budget, an R&D budget, then tax cuts, then a health programme.  He was very positive about the work that the UK has done around Social Enterprise – he sees that as being a key part of what will help us move forward.

Vij Randeniya, Chief Fire Officer, West Midlands was impressive and inspirational on the topic of leadership.  Talked about the three facets of Leadership, Management and Command, the latter being a new one on the traditional local government view of the world, but very relevant to him.  He wore uniform, deliberately, and said it was time for the experts to reassert themselves professionally – a smart uniform being a part of the mix.

Rob Whiteman, who is shortly off to to be MD of IDeA, spoke well about local leadership in Barking and Dagenham, and is clearly engaging with the wider issue of how we support innovation.  Was clear that if LG waits to be given independence it won’t happen and it has to be grabbed with both hands.  Also had his nice sound-bite in the context of siloes working against corporate interests of “professionals should be on tap, not on top”.

A session on Nannying, nudge or knowledge?  What inspires behaviour change? was very interesting.  Ben Hamilton-Baillie talked about some things that had been done with experimental traffic schemes to change driver and pedestrian behaviour.  Perhaps because that was more tangible, and he had photos, I was better able to cope with that at the end of day.  He basically talked about how humans wre very well adapted to behave sensibly and socially if allowed to do so.  He gave the example of norms that arise on an ice rink, and spoke about schemes such as one at Ashford in Kent where they have deliberately done away with lots of traffic lights, road markings, and so on, and cars and people interact in the town centre much more safely and easily than they did when when there was many thousands of pounds worth of street furniture and signals.

A session on innovation and the media might have been quite interesting but I was too busy catching up on Twitter (ho ho).  The hash tag for the conference is #pss2010 so you can see what people were saying.  Actually the main “wow” statistic I take from that session is that 24m people in the UK had used facebook in the last 30 days.  Over half of the people in the room were on facebook, though there was relatively little tweeting from the conference (in my case this was due to a concern about how twitter works alongside chatham house rules).

The next day had a useful set of talks about what will a post-recession public sector look like?  Philip Blond of ResPublica drove home the points that social enterprise and community engagement are key and that procurement will need to change to unlock benefit.  Said that research showed that the long-run cost reduction from private sector externalisation was only about 12%, and that was before including in costs of managing the contracts.   Craig Dearden-Philips, CE of SpeakingUp drew compellingly on his experience as a CEO of a charity, a front-line carer, and a county councillor to address the topic and to argue that social enterprise and community engagement are key and that procurement will need to change to unlock benefit.  Abdool Kara, now the CE at Swale, also anticipated more community based models – interestingly arguing that we may seem ALMO structures for more services than just housing.

Charlie Leadbetter was brilliant about community engagement mechanisms – “if you ask a question you’ll get an answer to it, so think very carefully about the question first”.  They have folk doing ethnographic studies, ie living for 6 months on estates alongside chaotic families to understand the points at which intervention can and can’t be effective.  Asserted that social workers get 14% face time, 72% admin.  Showed us a photo of a wall where they had mapped one family’s interaction with the public sector over 18 years, at a cost of many millions.

Lastly Jonathan Kestenaum, CE of NESTA spoke well about the difficulty and necessity of creating space for innovation in the public sector.  It is harder than doing it in the private sector, and more necessary.

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