Guardian Public Services Summit 2012

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The Guardian Public Services Summit is a rarity on the Summit circuit as it draws together people from across the public, voluntary and private sectors to share views on current issues and future opportunities in public service.  It provides an interesting snapshot of the zeitgeist and I have blogged on this in 2010 and 2011.

Coping with Change

In previous years the discussion has been about the wave of change about to hit, and possible strategies for dealing with it; this year there was more of a focus on actual change in practice.  What I found interesting about that was that there was very little setting out of one grand plan or big idea as the solution – in previous years you could have been forgiven for thinking that every known ill would be solved by social enterprises.  Indeed there was one whole session specifically rejecting the idea of “fashion” in public service design.  There emerged a clear appetite for: appealing to an actual evidence base to support decisions where this exists, a recognition of the need to try many different things, and not to be swayed by trendy management guru models invented for largeUScorporations.  Some strong views were expressed that an intellectual acceptance of the need for innovation hits a robust reality of risk aversion at a time of large scale people change and reduced capacity.

This was underlined in a talk by Mark Bee, the leader of Suffolk County Council who contrasted his council’s new approach to change with that driven forward by the previous chief executive, herself a speaker at the summit the year before. He talked with good humour about the need for bringing individual communities along on a change journey, and of working out practical detail to go beyond the big vision.  Much of the twittering (hashtag #pss2012) was about whether this approach could be fast enough to cope with the change required, but his essential stance seemed to be that it was the best available speed.  Having started with a moderately erudite Dickens quote he summarised his talk on a lower level but in very impactful way by quoting Banarama: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results”.

The speaker with the highest potential for controversy was Dr Chai Patel, who bravely spoke after dinner to a room full of potentially tired and emotional public servants about the tremendous power of entrepreneurship, the relative liberation of private sector delivery of public services, and the social impact of being able to tap into risk-taking shareholders as a source of funding.  As chairman of a company which has taken on a large fraction of homes following the Southern Cross failure, he was clear that this was a “business failure, not a market failure” – shareholders do lose all of their money from time to time, and that’s why they need a return the rest of the time.

Local Government

Other specific items that will be of interest to the Local Government reader – Carolyn Downs, new LGA Chief Executive argued that action to mitigate unsustainable costs of Adult Social care is the top priority for local government.  The NIESR economist Jonathan Portes argued that youth unemployment, unless tackled, will have a scarring effect for years to come.  Meanwhile a couple of police speakers underlined for many of us the need to switch a little of the partnership attention from health and wellbeing boards into the many implications of the imminent elections of police and crime commissioners, and their relationship with the police and crime panels.

Joanne Roney, Chief Executive of Wakefield Council spoke powerfully and modestly about the partnership working which has helped Wakefield cope with some very deep cuts – they worked out that even after the cuts they would have £2bn pa to spend on Wakefield’s public services and so made their work about choosing a future together rather than slipping into silo-based service cuts.  As another speaker said “innovation lies in the shift from victim to architect”.  Dave Smith, CE at Sunderland spoke of his council’s investment in a powerful public infrastructure of superfast broadband and cloud solutions to establish Sunderlandas a natural place for technology businesses as well as integrating public service delivery at lower cost, based on understanding customers.  There’s an article here.

Emerging themes – Citizen and Culture

Indeed one emerging theme from the conference was understanding our citizens’ lives better in order to help – Damian Allen from Knowsley MBC said that “it is the lives lived that we have to shape, and the places where they are lived”.  That understanding needs to be based on analytical insight and engagement, despite the fact that it is often the community engagement and communication roles that are seen as classic “non-job” examples.

But perhaps the strongest theme that emerged from all of the talk about change, repeated time and time again by most speakers, was about changing the culture of organisations, whether about being more entrepreneurial or innovative, taking risks, engaging better with communities and partners, even just coping with the level of personnel change. As someone quoted “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, a pertinent closing thought for a room full of strategic leaders to take away.

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