“How will Labour run public services when there’s less money around?” That’s what people need to know in order to understand how we will govern in a time of constrained public finances. In 1997, Labour rescued public services by correcting years of Tory underinvestment, financed from the proceeds of growth. But what do we have to offer when three years of economic stagnation under George Osborne mean that Labour will inherit a very difficult situation?
First, we must reject the Tory approach of using it as an excuse to introduce permanent austerity. We cannot leave vulnerable people and communities to sink or swim when we have taken away their capacity to survive. Indeed, because the Tories don’t really believe in public services, they have no plan to improve them in tough times: their response to spending constraint has simply been to salami-slice services, with damaging results. Instead, one nation Labour must do better for less by transforming services so that existing resources are used more effectively.
Top-down public services delivered through monolithic structures with no direct accountability to service users are not only inefficient, but struggle to deliver the outcomes communities want. By contrast, a one nation approach to public services is about ensuring everyone can play their part and everyone has a stake. That means enabling people to come together to shape their own services, and ensuring public services are more directly accountable to the people who use them. That way, services become more responsive to changing needs, better at preventing problems from growing into crises, and more effective at helping people aspire to a better life.
Many people living on social housing estates are deeply frustrated that the basic housing services they rely on are inadequate. Walk round parts of our towns where people own their own homes and you’ll generally find a more pleasant environment than on most of our social housing estates. The reason is that homeowners have more control over where they live than most tenants, who are forced to live in circumstances decided by their local housing managers over whom they have little, if any, control.
But that can change. Where housing estates have become tenant-managed, services often improve dramatically. Brixton’s Blenheim Gardens Estate used to be a place that people were keen to move away from. Today it is a place where people are proud to live. Compared to the local council’s average, repairs are done more quickly and cheaply, empty homes are re-let faster, the environment is cleaner and crime is lower. The reason? The housing managers are employed by, and accountable to, a board elected annually by the people who live on the estate. If residents don’t like the quality of services they’re getting, they can replace the managers with new staff who deliver higher standards. This is direct accountability and it leads to more responsive and cost-effective public services, whatever the level of funding available.
There are similar ways to make other public services accountable to the people who use them. Frail older people or people living with disabilities can pool personalised budgets and, with appropriate advice and support, choose and then buy in the care services they want rather than put up with whatever the authorities decide they need.
Communities experiencing high levels of youth crime can be supported to choose the interventions they believe will stop the problems at source, using their knowledge of their own community, troubled families and the individual young people living among them to shape services and interventions that work.
And we know that DWP programmes are performing poorly for the long-term unemployed and for disabled people. Part of that is the lack of connection between large-scale programmes and the local labour market – the people who know what skills are needed, and where the jobs are. So a more localised approach could help fit provision to people’s needs, like the pilot in Oldham that gave unemployed young people tools and vans to set themselves up in building trades rather than continue on endless CV writing programmes.
Of course we need to help build the capacity of more vulnerable or excluded communities to participate and ensure that measures to ensure financial probity, equal access and safeguarding are all in place. But there are always ways to do that, and once it happens you start to shape a new model of public services that is directly accountable to the people who rely on it rather than simply telling people they have to live with decisions made by distant bureaucrats who might have no first-hand experience of their lives.
Instead of doing things ‘to’ people, we can re-engage them in decision-making in the communities they are already part of and, by doing that, improve the quality of relationships that are vital to a wider sense of wellbeing. Importantly, this approach stops services seeing people as problems to be solved and instead values them for the potential contribution they can make.
Reshaping the state around citizens is revolutionary because it involves putting service users in the driving seat, rather than trying to micromanage services from Whitehall. That’s no easy thing. But do it we must, because Britain needs a credible answer to how we reform public services to do better for less, and central to that is handing power to people and the communities they belong to.