Is there a third wave of change?
14 February 2011
Getting the Big Society to work in Britain is likely to take a decade, never mind a single parliament, writes Colin Talbot who considers the extent of risk, rethink and revolution required to deliver results for the coalition
We have obviously entered a period of radical change in British, and especially English, public services.
The first element of radical change is clearly about resources – they are going to radically reduce in all areas, and much more so in some than others. At the same time, demand continues to rise inexorably in some fields – especially health and social care for the elderly. For many public sector managers, it must feel like "budgets" and "cuts" is the only game in town at the moment.
The second radical change is going to be structural – changes to health, education, welfare benefits, policing and many other areas are all going to throw existing structures up into the air. Whether the aim is localism or more competition, or both, these major reorganisations are bound to have initially disruptive effects.
Some of these structural changes are aimed at producing consequential changes in the way things get done – but they don't guarantee this, as we have all too often discovered in past structural reform efforts. Inertia and unintended consequences are often just as likely.
Many must be seeking space, in this context, for a third wave of change – aimed at doing things radically differently and making what some have called radical efficiency savings by, for example, changing service delivery models in fundamental ways?
Of course there is a strong argument that such change is necessary if we are to maintain effective services in the age of austerity – doing more for less is needed more than ever. But necessity isn't the same as possibility.
So, is radical change to the way services are delivered possible? My answer would be, yes, it is, but we need to be hard-headed and realistic about what is possible, how fast and what is needed to achieve it. Making ludicrously overblown promises and failing to identify risks won't, in the long run, help.
The first form of radical change might be in the way public organisations do things. Ideas like Total Place, or dare I say it, "joined-up government", represent attempts to rethink the way services are designed. I made the point to the Public Administration Select Committee recently that the recent, rushed bonfire of the quangos had missed a trick in not using the review of these arms-length bodies to do a fundamental re-evaluation of how services are located and organised.
The second form of radical change might be subsumed under the Big Society rubric. Underneath the Big Society idea lie two fundamental propositions, which are quite separate ideas and don't inevitably go together.
The first is the long-held Conservative view, shared by some Liberal Democrats, that the state in Britain grew too big in the post-WWII expansion and it should be at least restrained and at best rolled back to a smaller, leaner version – more America than Sweden. The Big Society is an alternative to the Big State – voluntary and self-organised community activity replacing tax-funded state action.
Now there is a healthy and legitimate debate about how big the state should be, as a proportion of national wealth, in any society. But much more tricky is the idea that if the state withdraws from areas it has previously occupied, the Big Society will step in. The problem is simple – those countries, like the US, that have relatively high levels of self-organised production of social services have usually always had them, for decades if not centuries. They have evolved out of deep- rooted cultural values and norms, and often a strong base of social capital.
It may be possible – and desirable – to radically change the amount of self-organisation in Britain but it is unlikely that it will change within a decade, much less a single parliament. True, there are some socio-technical changes that may make it easier – the rise of "wiki-nomics" and "crowd-sourcing" is fascinating, and has huge potential, but they have yet to spread in a substantial way into rather more prosaic areas like health care and care for the elderly.
It is also unclear what role the state should, and can, play in developing the Big Society. And this brings me to the second big idea potentially underpinning the Big Society – co-production. Co-production has many definitions, and many forms, but it is essentially the idea of jointly producing the services and outcomes that individuals, communities and society want. This may involve organisation-to-organisation co-production – for example, cooperation between the state and civil society organisations.
This idea isn't the same as the Small State-Big Society notion, because it doesn't necessarily depend on shrinking the state. It could be Big State plus Big Society, as happens in some forms of Scandinavian welfare provision, for example. It does mean a fundamental rethink about the relationship between state producers and their users and the rest of civil society. In many cases it would require a two-fold cultural revolution – in the attitudes of public servants to their users and in the attitude of those users to public services.
Some of the government's proposed structural reforms – passing more power down to GPs and teachers, for example – present both an opportunity and a danger in this respect.
The danger is clear, and used to be called "producer capture" or "professionalisation" (in a pejorative sense) – the problem of the professionals either assuming they always know best, or, even worse, simply organising services in their own interests rather than that of their users. It's not just bureaucrats who can be high-handed with the public.
The opportunity clearly is that GPs and teachers on the one side, and patients, pupils and parents on the other, will seize the opportunity to forge a new sort of co-production relationship. If this were to happen then we could see genuine cultural revolution, and potentially big productivity gains, in public services, but that is a big and uncertain "if". Such a result is far from guaranteed and it is not at all clear that much thought has been given to ensuring it is the latter rather than the former outcome that triumphs.
So I would suggest there are three strands to a radical agenda for change: first, looking at how the production process within public services can be radically re-shaped to produce better results; second, looking at how the co-production relationship between state providers and users and communities can be changed; and third, looking at ways that things that are currently "statised" might be transferred to society and community organisations.
Finally, none of these are costless or frictionless. They all require potentially disruptive, and in the short-term costly, change. They would all take considerable time to implement and reach their full potential – in some cases over three or four parliaments rather than one.Colin Talbot is professor of public policy and management at Manchester Business School