Last week saw the Solace Summit 2011 – a deliberate change in format from the normal “Conference” event. I think it worked well. One of the key changes was the creation of a communique as an output from the whole thing. It’s here and it’s worth a read as a snapshot of some of the key issues, opportunities and challenges in Local Government.
My background musing from the conference related to the nature of “the public sector”. It increasingly strikes me that a reframing of “the public sector” to include all of those organisations which provide public services (which I will temporarily define as state funded services) will be a useful part of the big solutions we need to find.
The Solace Communique talks about a different relationship with the private sector, and I think that’s right. There are some things that the private sector, public sector and third sectors are good at that the others aren’t, and if we can find effective ways of combining the best of them then we may see a way through.
The public sector is very good at choosing and rationing, because these are things that can only be done with a democratic mandate, and can be very good at managing substantial complexity. The third sector is very good at engagement and being, and being seen to be, values-aligned. The private sector is very good at making long-term investment decisions, taking a portfolio of risks, and mobilising resources at scale. Actual delivery competence, and user trust, varies widely across all three sectors, with far more variation within each sector than there is between them. Despite this there are folk in all sectors who believe with a passion that theirs is the only true path to service performance, and it’s the ideological underpinnings to that that represent the biggest human blockage to progress.
Some of the more innovative proposals that are being made in and around local public services combine all three sectors, or pairs in unusual ways.
I hope that something that may come out of this is a recognition that public service, and the ethos that comes with it, isn’t just a function of your funding mechanism. Not everyone who is directly funded by public money or donation is a saint. Not everyone who works in the private sector is a sinner. I’m increasingly seeing that we all operate under constraints. As a local government officer I had to work within budgets and the democratically determined policies of my council, and did my best within those constraints. As a trustee of a charity I was constrained by funding and specific deliverables that were required by our funders. In the private sector I get arguably more freedom to innovate, explore and do things that I think are important for public service, but have to work within a constraint of making a profit proportional to the size of the risk. If we can get a good mix across these skills and constraints then perhaps we can find our way through what is otherwise a very bleak prospect. As they used to say on my History of Art course “Great Art Thrives on Constraints”.