The future of the left since 1884

Great possibilities

It is the right moment to take stock of Europe’s public services and consider their future over the next 10 to 15 years, writes Andrew Harrop.



Public services across the UK and Europe have faced profound change in recent times as a result of spending pressures, market reforms and the impact of digital technologies. Our welfare states continue to help people in inspirational ways. But a decade of public sector austerity has measurably damaged fundamental dimensions of people’s lives. In Britain this is illustrated by the rise of food banks and street homelessness, the withdrawal of support for frail older people, lower family living standards and stalling life expectancy.

Now, in 2020, welfare states in Europe face an unprecedented challenge in the shape of the Covid-19 virus, which is set to test the resilience and adaptability of the public sphere in extraordinary ways. The response to the crisis is shining a light on the best of public service – its ethical commitment, professional expertise and shared purpose. But it also exposing dangerous vulnerabilities, arising from years of cost-cutting and fragmentation.

It is therefore the right moment to take stock of Europe’s public services and consider their future over the next 10 to 15 years. A civil emergency reminds us that public service is special and unique. The dividing line between the public sphere and the world of commerce may sometimes be blurred and contested, but welfare states stand in contrast to markets in both their mission and methodology.

The goal of public services is to equip people with the capabilities they need to thrive, to meet our essential shared needs. One way to bring this purpose to life would be to codify governments’ responsibilities to their citizens and incorporate a fuller range of internationally recognised human rights into domestic law. This would allow citizens and civil society to challenge governments if they fail to discharge their obligations with respect to securing good health, education, housing and living standards for all.

It would also provide a new framework for dialogue between citizens and public bodies, and hopefully change mindsets and cultures among elected politicians, public managers and frontline workers (particularly with respect to serving the most marginalised and vulnerable in society). In the rest of Europe this approach is being used to reinvigorate EU social policy, which is now built around key social rights with new institutional machinery to advance them in each member state.

Public services need to be better at discharging these enduring responsibilities. But they also need to respond to the new and emerging challenges of the next 10 or 15 years. Over the next decade welfare states will need to offer better health, more support and care, higher skills, greater income security and stronger community bonds. And they must also meet the challenge of de-carbonisation.

To respond to these priorities, existing services need to achieve more and become more sustainable. But the scope of the public sphere also needs to change. De-carbonisation requires that the public sector takes the lead in delivering carbon-neutral urban mobility and affordable, low-energy housing. Meanwhile today’s great social challenges call for an expansion in the scope of the public sphere in order to guarantee comprehensive care in old age and early childhood, to open lifelong learning to all, and to ensure that everyone can make good use of essential technologies.

When combined with demographic pressures, these new calls for spending mean there will be continual upward pressure on public expenditure in the 2020s. With no sign of a return to pre-2008 levels of economic growth and the inevitability of a new Coronavirus recession, expenditure is set to rise as a percentage of national income: politicians will conclude that the case for structurally higher spending is just too great to ignore. Spending increases could be reactive and piecemeal however, which will do nothing to correct the recent drift from long-term investments, in people and places, towards mainly meeting immediate needs, particularly in old age. That’s why a focus on long-term priorities matters, as does investment in the capital infrastructure of the welfare state.

In response to the social challenges ahead, politicians must consider expanding the availability of universally-available public services (sometimes called ‘universal basic services’). This is not a one-size-fits-all call for free, state-delivered services, in contrast to the proposals of the Labour party at the 2019 general election. Instead it is an appeal to extend the scope of collective, democratic responsibility for meeting shared needs.

Services should be affordable to all and run in the public interest. But, with Europe’s diverse patchwork of welfare institutions in mind, new provision will not always be free-at-the-point-of-need or delivered by an arm of the state. The Labour party missed this point in 2019 when it promised a new public monopoly to deliver free state broadband; it should instead have called for a new public responsibility for ensuring that everyone makes use of digital connectivity, which is now a fundamental human need.

With such variety of public service institutions across Europe, what matters is not public ownership but a strong ‘public domain’ of public service and collective interest. This may in different contexts be secured by government delivery, purchasing, public interest regulation or strong institutional and cultural norms. The UK has examples of non-state social purpose institutions (for example, universities and housing associations) but they play less of a role in Britain than in many European welfare states. The public interest is also less embedded within cultures and governance structures across all sectors and this has made the UK particularly vulnerable to the incursion of market forces into public services. We need to focus on strengthening the ‘public character’ of welfare services, irrespective of who is delivering them.

In the 2020s, this public ethos needs to include a deep commitment to democratic accountability and citizen voice and participation. As a minimum that must mean involving service users in each institution’s governance and decision-making; and a strategic role for democratic local and regional government in designing, scrutinising and coordinating public services in each locality. This ‘governance innovation’ will be just as important as technological innovation to improve public services. Going further, more public goals can be addressed by communities themselves through self-governance and experimentation, instead of state or market.

The public interest will never be delivered solely through publicly owned and funded bodies. But the recent retreat of markets and outsourcing in the British welfare state is a moment of opportunity for the left. In the UK the collapse of outsourcers and rail franchisees is proof that the contract-state has not succeeded, even on its own terms, because it is unable to deliver value for money, reliability or innovation. But, worse, market reforms have hindered efforts to join-up public services and forge deeper, more mutual relationships with citizens: in future there should be a presumption in favour of state delivery in the case of services involving coercion or intensive two-way relationships.

The strongest argument for undoing market reforms is to replace fragmentation with unity and integration. Welfare states depend on institutional complexity, but to build preventative, personalised and responsive public services, agencies need to work together in networks of collaboration and feel seamless from the perspective of the citizen. A more united public service ethos and brand may be needed to help drive this integration. But the critical ingredient for the seamless public services of the future is technology.

In the past ‘digital-first’ public services have not always been well-received, when they have seemed to offer existing services through unfamiliar channels that transfer administrative burdens from providers to users. Cost-saving innovation is understandable, because the financial pressures on public services demand continual productivity improvements. But in recent years the quality of online government services has really started to get better and in the decade ahead new technologies could radically improve people’s experiences of public services.

Transactions with the public sector should become far easier and less fragmented, particularly as the UK’s single government portal matures. End-to-end digital services (including human contact via video-link not just automated processes) will break down the physical barriers that stop people using public services. Meanwhile good design, focused on accessibility, simplicity and the needs of diverse users can minimise technology-related forms of exclusion. Done right, the UK’s common digital gateway for public services could also bring the opportunity to de-stigmatise dimensions of the welfare state that are today viewed with suspicion: with a single online portal applying for means-tested benefits might one day become as psychologically neutral as paying council tax or finding childcare.

The real prize however is not better interactions with government but ‘invisible’ service delivery, where public services work together for people without their direct engagement. The possibilities include automatic repeat prescriptions from general practices through better data management; ‘tell me once’ data-sharing that triggers access to every benefit and service to which someone is entitled; and profiling using AI and large datasets to predict likely risks and needs and orient services around targeting and prevention.

These innovations can only be achieved at scale however if governments earn people’s trust with respect to data. Public services must convince people they are committed to data privacy, ethics and control, and give people ownership of their own data. There is a win-win here: the more government stands up to ‘big tech’ with respect to data rights in the private sector, the more it can earn public trust to use data well in delivering public services. This will require public authorities to keep a larger measure of control over the design and implementation of their digital systems and the data they generate, in order to remain transparent, participatory and respectful of citizens’ rights.

The 2020s are a time of great possibility for public services. There is huge potential for new technologies to meet our shared needs, and this can be best realised in the context of strong public interest institutions working in collaboration not competition. But there are big risks too, because the demands on the public realm will be so high. In many European counties, public services were already threadbare before the coronavirus crisis. Without more money, faster innovation and a stronger voice for citizens they could enter into a declining spiral, where people lose confidence and trust. With right-wing governments in power across so much of Europe that risk has grown more likely, but it is not inevitable. The 2020 emergency is revealing the essential role of welfare states. The future of public services can be filled with hope.

Read Public Service Futures: Welfare States in the Digital Age here.

Andrew Harrop

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.


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