Reforming public services: the opportunity the non-profit sector gives

Dan Corry

For quite a while the New Public Management (NPM) approach to public services ruled the roost. But, rightly, its power is now on the wane. It became too rigid, too much about targets, had perverse effects in a number of places, and de-professionalised front line staff in ways that did no good for those they were there to serve.

This is all to the good, for NPM as a way of thinking of how we deliver good public services is just too limited. We must not jettison everything that came with that agenda in a fit of pique. For instance who would want to seriously get rid of A&E waiting targets, or league tables that give parents and patients useful information? Nobody on the progressive side should want to stop citizens having some choice over where they get their treatment, or what help for their disability they receive. And let’s not throw out all the regulation carried out by organisations like the CQC and Ofsted that look out for poor quality services that let our people down.

But if we want to move on from NPM we have to head in some new directions – and this gives a chance for the voluntary sector and progressive thinking to come together to ensure we move forward – and not back.

The drift of Corbynite policy towards public services is so far a bit unclear but if it is anything like the approach to private services and industries it may end up being about wanting to keep (or even return) most things in-house and avoid all contracting out. Just as some seem to pine for a golden age when every industry was run directly by the state, so others look back to a supposed nirvana when local government and other bits of the state ran everything – however good or bad the services to citizens.

Of course the left has always been suspicious – probably too suspicious – of the use of private providers to deliver public services. Their endless search for profit means you can never trust their motives or underestimate their guile in cutting corners and while many provide great services we take for granted, there are enough high profile examples of failure from the likes of G4S and Serco to keep this suspicion alive and well.

So one answer that emerges is to use non-profits – charities, voluntary groups, social enterprise – as those providers.  And this makes sense even more when our understanding of how to really address some of the hardest social issues suggests that we want more of our services based on the assets of the individual, family or community and less just working out their needs and filling them; that we want services delivered with citizens not just done to them (co-production is the ugly term for this); that we want a state that is relational in its approach to those it claims to help rather than being top down; and that we want to work in a preventative way, acting before problems emerge not once they have reached crisis moments.

As a general statement, charities are rather good at this stuff and so if we want to tackle complex issues like re-offending, alcohol and drug dependence, domestic violence, to be able to deal with NEETs, loneliness in later life and to keep children out of care, then we ought to be trying to use this sector.

That does not – in my experience – always cut it with Labour folk. They see non-profits as just another way of undermining the state, the thin end of the outsourcing wedge. It is something you have to do – rather than want to – because of Tory austerity. And as they have seen the Tories encouraging charities – at least rhetorically – to provide services in everything from the Work Programme to the Transforming Rehabilitation scheme and Troubled Families programme, their suspicions rise.

Certainly we must make sure these reasonable fears are addressed. It is crucial that they are not about undercutting terms and conditions (be that via volunteers or lower wages); they must be accountable one way or another – although we don’t want to be overly rigid here; we must still care about equity across geographies and income groups, something only the state can really act upon; and we must not relegate the key role of democratic bodies in the state – this is not about the Big Society.

But the voluntary sector as part of the mix gives us other benefits too. It helps give a voice to the citizens – especially those who cannot bulldoze their way through to good public services (the so –called sharp elbowed middle classes), doing this at an individual level by helping them navigate through the public services jungle; in collective ways, by raising the interest of groups being ignored (be that around FGM, asylum seekers or families of children in care), and of course in campaigning for different approaches and different laws. In different ways they bring in innovation to our public realm and help create a society based on values and plurality rather than profits or bureaucracy.

Of course not all voluntary sector bodies are any good and their passion for their mission does, in the experience of NPC, lead to a great deal of over-claiming about their impact. But many good and smaller charities find it currently hard to win the contracts that have increasingly replaced grants, in these times of stretched resources.

The left needs to develop its approach to public services beyond a simple refrain of being against cuts and for much more limited outsourcing. It did not have enough to say about it in the 2015 Campaign and seems to have even less to say at present.

Part of the answer will about how to harness the non–profit sector to this endeavour. Let the thinking begin.

 

Dan Corry is CEO of charity think tank and consultancy NPC and a former Labour adviser at the Treasury and Downing Street.

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