Giving users of public services a choice of provider is one of the central pillars of the Government’s ‘Open Public Services’ agenda.
The recently published update paper (“Opening Public Services 2012”) set out new measures to increase choice and control for service users. As a minimum the Government will be commissioning an “independent review” of the barriers to and, promoting the availability of choice to users. At the same time, the Government has launched a call for evidence to potentially go further than this by establishing whether there is, or might be in the future, value in enshrining a ‘right to choose’ into legislation.
But, how does a market-based approach to public services play with the Government’s strategic aim to facilitate the ‘Big Society’ where, community action leads the way rather than the state?
A key part of creating that bigger society is the role that the voluntary and community sector plays in public and community life. Far from all voluntary and community organisations are involved in the delivery of public services, but the vast majority are least concerned about, or are seeking to influence their quality and delivery. So how will increasing choice for public service users, impact on the voluntary and community sector? This is one of a number of questions on public service choice which will be explored at a London Civic Forum seminar later this month.
For a start, it will mean the power to choose and purchase services will shift from public sector commissioners to service users; significantly changing the operating environment for VCS organisations whether or not they regard themselves as service providers.
While, VCS service providers might not feel that they are currently operating in a stable environment. In a choice-based operating framework income will be less assured and cash flow less predictable. Instead of marketing themselves to one or a handful of commissioners providers will have to attract users and clients directly and individually themselves - by the tens, hundreds or even thousands. Consequently, there will be some significant practical challenges in adapting systems and processes to costing as well as delivering and managing individual packages of services. The dynamics of their financial model will change; economies of scale may well be lost, cash flow disrupted and the risk profile shifted upwards.
It is likely to mean a shift in demand for certain type of services; providers will need to respond and adapt accordingly. This will be welcomed by many in the sector as an opportunity to develop the kinds of services they always believed in, but were never commissioned to deliver. At the same time, some will find out that they are not as in-tuned with user needs as they might have thought.
For those VCS organisations which do not provide public services, but act as an advocate for users, providing information and support, the terrain will become a lot more complicated to navigate. Consequently, their services will be sought after. But will they have the capacity to respond? And, will their knowledge still be valid in a different environment?
While, it is not assured that everyone in the sector will welcome the shift nonetheless, it will mean considerable change in the short and medium term and, not all VCS organisations will be able to cope with that change.
That will depend to a significant part upon the design of the new service framework the Government is aiming for and the journey of change it is taking towards that reform. Here, the Government will need to fully understand and embrace the dynamics and drivers of the services that they are reforming and those of the VCS sector itself. They will need to decide upfront and conclusively whether they really want the VCS sector (and I do not just mean the larger charities and social enterprises) to be central to these reforms.
I believe this means taking an approach which is nuisance and is personified by the phrase ‘personalisation’ rather, than a sweeping one purely grounded in market economics. In that way the sector’s capabilities, aspirations and energy can be fully utilised for the benefit of public service users.
Mark Upton, Consultant, Public Policy Strategies
Opening Public Services – a real choice for citizens? Tuesday, 12th June 2012, 10am – 12.30pm Venue: Amnesty International UK, the Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EA