The headline stories from the Party Conferences were about the economy, and the orchestration by the organisers and managers to present their parties in themost favourable light. Party members were a bit thin on the ground, but lobbyists were there in abundance. Yet around the fringe meetings, the theme of public service reform was vigorously discussed.
Public service reform is one area to which all the parties subscribe with varying degrees of warmth. The common ground is that we cannot provide services in the top-down way as in the past: they must be more user-responsive and ‘personalised’, and we have to re-configure them to get more outcomes for less money.
How we do this is more difficult. Localism, enshrined in the Coalition Agreement, passes more responsibility to local government and local representatives, with a diminished role for the centre to set national targets and eligibility criteria, but local councillors attending the conferences were in two minds about having this task thrust upon them. They will need to rethink their role: are they the voice of the Council delivering the services, or are they the voice of the neighbourhood, demanding that the Council needs to change the way it provides services (ie place-shapers, seeking new powers for community groups and other service-providers in their patch)?
Nowhere was this more hotly debated than in the area of social care provision, a big ticket spending item for local government, and one where there is a policy vacuum as the Government tries to draw a new map which triangulates national entitlements, local flexibility in service responses, and encouraging new service providers to enter the market.
That last was also discussed on the fringe. How do we enable more mutuals and social enterprises, and support more local volunteering, to add to our public service offering? At all the conferences there was willingness to engage with this issue, but a raft of difficulties and barriers was identified.
We are spreading the word about models of good practice very poorly. There are few immediate places where would-be providers can access good information about extant working models. There is little resource for the consumer who is encouraged to take control of their personalised budget to find ideas and inspiration. Whilst at all the Party Conferences there was willingness to address public services reform, there was a shared frustration with how to do so.
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