Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 4. Public services would be better

This is the fourth in a series of posts on why social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’re publishing the whole series over the next two weeks, and we welcome your comments.

Public and voluntary services on the ground would be better if the policy that shaped and informed them was developed by and with provider organisations, practitioners and the public.

In part this follows from what we’ve earlier in this series, that policy would be better – it would be better researched, more credible, more reliable, and more grounded in real life. Policy developed in collaboration with, rather than in opposition to, all the people who are responsible for its success right down to the frontline – including service users – would also stand a better chance of being successfully implemented with this greater collective commitment behind it. The result would be that public services would operate in a much improved environment. Funding would be more suited what services are designed to achieve (more important than ever when there’s much less money to go around), as would regulations, accountability and reporting requirements, and so on.

This approach to policy development would also help to put policy in its place, in two main respects.

Firstly, it would enable and encourage greater responsibility for service improvement where it belongs – at the frontline. Decades of New Public Management (NPM) – of centrally prescribed and imposed targets and in many cases methods – have reduced the capacity for autonomous improvement at the frontline. It has generated policy that has often worked against services by distracting from or undermining improved quality and cost effectiveness, through such approaches as ‘command and control‘ tactics and tick-box monitoring. A new collective and collaborative approach to policy development would help to identify and resolve the policies that act as practical barriers to improvement at the frontline.

It would also signal that it the primary responsibility for improvement lies at the frontline. Top-down policymaking and reform initiatives induce passivity and a lack of responsibility. If we want practitioners and the public to be engaged, to care about services and help to ‘co-produce‘ them, then how we develop the policy that shapes these services also matters. A new collaborative, co-operative approach to policy development would send a strong message that a cultural shift had taken place, and that it’s a right and also a responsibility of those at the frontline to speak up.

Secondly, following this, a new approach to policy development would also allow and encourage more innovation at the frontline. The Government’s emphasis on ‘open public services‘ is intended to promote greater localism, personal choice and control, diversity and experimentation. But we can’t generate open public services if how we develop public policy is still closed and remote. The lesson of the limitations of New Public Management is that innovation doesn’t come from the centre. The best way to update policy more quickly to reflect and support emerging approaches to delivering better, cheaper services would be to ensure that the people and organisations providing those services can more directly inform policy. Even the new set of mechanisms that are meant to stimulate local experimentation (Payment by Results, Social Impact Bonds etc) are likely to be ill-designed if they are developed in the same old centralised way. When the rules about how these mechanisms work are insufficiently informed by providers, practitioners and service users – as seems to be the case at the moment – then they are much less likely to lead to more innovation by these groups.

More broadly, if we want services that care about people and treat them with respect, including the staff that deliver them, then the way in which we develop policy matters. It’s naive to assume that how we treat people doesn’t in turn often inform how they treat others – in which case it’s hypocritical of policymakers in central government to adopt what is in effect a bullying approach to policy while at the same time decrying a lack of respect for service users and ill-treatment when it occurs at the frontline. Ultimately, if we want to engender a new passion and commitment around public services – that it’s a good and honourable thing to serve people, sometimes in difficult and demanding circumstances and in most cases for not great pay – then this will depend on granting the people who provide services greater respect than they get at the moment, including listening to what they have to say. That’s also what this project is about, so let us know your thoughts.

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