By Tim Gibson

11 Mar 2015

Public participation may be the key to better services, but how do you enable citizens to perform their civic duty? Tim Gibson reports from a recent CSW roundtable

Do you remember May 2010? After five tense days of negotiation, David Cameron and Nick Clegg stood side by side in a sunny Downing Street rose garden and set out their vision for a new way of running the country, together. 

At the heart of their plan was a wide-ranging reform of the public sector, which the freshly-minted Prime Minister later shared with government workers at that year’s Civil Service Live. 

One of the central planks of the reform agenda was the initiation of a new culture in the UK; one of voluntarism and community engagement, where the population took responsibility for aspects of its own wellbeing, freeing the public sector to concentrate on core areas of service delivery. 

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The term that came to be used as shorthand for this initiative was the Big Society. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t receive universal approbation from the government workforce, some of whom saw it as a cynical way of bleeding resources from the public sector while leaving society’s most vulnerable exposed. 

Whatever the political interpretation, the Big Society has all but disappeared from the Westminster landscape some five years after those heady days of fledgling coalition government. So it’s ironic that at a recent CSW roundtable, supported by Northgate Public Services (NPS), it was left to a group of civil servants to reinvigorate one of its core principles: namely, enhanced public participation in services. 

The retreat of the state?
As the government shrinks, departments need to find ways to safeguard the quality of public services. Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, made this point after last year’s Autumn Statement, suggesting there would be a “fundamental reimagining of the role of the state” during the 2015-20 parliament.

Round table chair Richard Vize, a consultant from CSW’s parent company Dods, reminded attendees of Johnson’s words as he set out the terms of the debate. “We need to consider the way the state relates to citizens,” he said, “and see whether public participation could be part of driving that change to new and possibly more exciting and effective ways of working.”

According to research carried out by Northgate Public Services and Dods Research last September, a majority of civil servants believe it could be. Around 1,300 people responded to the survey, with 89 per cent of senior managers stating that the active contribution of citizens can lead to better services, and half the respondents saying it might make them cheaper. 

Alongside the positivity from those within government, NPS’s director of service strategy, Sue Holloway, said there is plenty of good will among citizens when it comes to getting involved in service delivery. 

“We surveyed over 1,000 people and found that there’s still a great sense of civic duty,” she reported. “But it’s a different world out there now, and we need to do things differently. It’s about finding a route to untapped potential, thinking really hard about the spectrum of capabilities and time available to the individuals that we’re working with.”

A step back
Naturally, before rushing to unleash this potential, it pays to be certain of the merits of handing some control for service design and delivery over to the general public. 

Paula McDonald, deputy director of the Public Bodies Reform Team in the Cabinet Office, quickly established one very strong argument in its favour. “By slimming down the [service delivery] landscape,” she reported, “we’ve saved £2.6 billion since the last spending review.” 

That’s a dramatic cost reduction, and it’s allied to enhancements in efficiency, too. For example, Patrick Donohoe, head of modelling in the Government Property Unit at the Cabinet Office, said that members of the public have been invited to challenge the government when they see ineffective use of its estate, such as empty office buildings, thereby helping it to make better use of its resources. 

Another benefit is improved service quality – the major driver for increasing public participation so far as the respondents to the NPS/Dods Research survey were concerned. Paula McDonald had a ready example of this, in the form of the recent reform of the Canal and River Trust. 

Whereas the government used to take sole responsibility for the care and maintenance of the UK’s waterways, it has now ceded control to local volunteers. These enthusiasts work in concert with Defra, and other departments where necessary, to deliver the service in their area. 

“This involves a lot of volunteers up and down the UK who love canals, and are interested in [looking after them],” remarked McDonald. “[It’s] people of all ages and backgrounds getting involved in a voluntary way, putting back ownership for running [the service] into the community.”

As well as enhancing quality, such reform has empowered communities to take responsibility for the environment – both human and natural – around them. That’s where the political rhetoric meets a deeper ideology, in which citizens are given what they need to help form a flourishing society. 

Consider the case study shared by Fiona Kilpatrick, head of employer engagement in the Health, Disability and Employment Directorate at DWP. She spoke about a programme in the NHS in Leeds, where a local organisation employed volunteers with learning disabilities to act as “buddies” for patients with similar conditions. 

Thanks to this scheme, patients are given support by peers who really understand the challenges facing them as they navigate their way around the health service. “It’s proved so effective that the NHS is now looking at employing people with learning disabilities specifically for these roles,” Kilpatrick said. “They get a proper job out of it, and it saves on people not turning up for appointments, [as well as helping] communication between staff and patients.” In sum, she concluded, it’s an example of all that’s good about greater public participation in services. 

Ensuring accountability
Notwithstanding the obvious benefits of engaging citizens in the design and delivery of services, no one is proposing a wholesale handover of every facet of the government’s work. As Paula McDonald pointed out, it is important to find the “right fit of accountability”. 

“Sometimes we find that the most important thing is that the government takes on things it should be responsible for,” she reported, “to actually unburden people in communities who are struggling with things that it’s not appropriate for them to deal with.”

This requires discernment on the part of service providers, of course, who have to make judgments about areas where public involvement is appropriate. 

There is no shortage of situations where that’s very much the case. Take the DWP’s Disability Confident campaign as a case in point. Intended to encourage companies to employ people with disabilities, the approach adopted has been one of partnership between the government and the employer community to spread the word. 

“Peer messaging is really crucial,” commented Fiona Kilpatrick.  “If the government stands up and says something is really good, it may not be listened to. But if a big employer says it, it makes sense.”
In essence, this is a question of trust and credibility – and the involvement of partners outside government enhances both areas. What’s more, the approach adopted has been much cheaper than a traditional advertising campaign, which Kilpatrick estimates would have cost something like £500,000. 

Partnering with businesses to help spread government messages is one thing, but there are also times when the state needs to interact directly with end users in developing services. An example of this comes in the work that the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is doing to prepare farmers for the introduction of a new subsidy system. 

“As part of the CAP reform, we’re moving from the Single Payment Scheme to a Basic Payment Scheme,” explained Sue Buzzeo, a project manager in the agency’s Change Directorate. “This involves a transition from digital and paper claims to purely digital, so there won’t be a paper option at all.”

In consequence, the RPA is working hard to set up every farmer in the country with a computer, and develop a user interface that is easy to access. This involves an Agile approach to managing the project, where the technology is tested among the user group, their feedback noted and acted upon, and improvements made for further trials. 

That’s a lengthy process, and gives the lie to the idea that public participation in service design eases pressure on the civil service. But the result will be a better quality of service, and empowered end users, meaning that the delivery phase should work much more smoothly. 

This can only be good news, as Stuart Armstrong, a strategy advisor at HMRC, was quick to observe. “If something works better at the point of delivery,” he said, “that makes for a better overall outcome. We’ll have happier consumers, be more effective in garnering support and engagement, and get a more favourable press response.” 

In other words, Armstrong concluded, greater public participation in services may result in the counterintuitive position of the government having more power, rather than less. That’s because its credibility will be enhanced by higher-quality services that prove effective when delivered.

Shaping the future
Talking of credibility, one of the key changes to face service providers in recent years is the rise of social media. This has been a significant development, giving citizens the chance to offer instant feedback on services and policy, and interact much more directly with the government. 

Some departments have embraced this change, using social media to ease pressure on their other communications channels. One example is HMRC, as Ian Moules, a manager in its Agents Compliance team, reported. 

“We get a lot of phone calls at busy times of year,” he said, “and have tried using Twitter to answer general questions that others can feed off. It’s an attempt to reduce people coming to us on the phone lines.”

Such an approach enhances efficiency and improves the user experience, but social media can also be a way of helping citizens engage more directly with services. Danielle Cox, a system improvement manager at Ofgem, said that its Twitter account is popular among industry users, who draw on it to communicate government policies and advice to their customers.

There is a further stage on from this, too, which involves user groups interacting via social media channels to inform the development of services. Barend Strydom, a project manager in the Centre for Applied Science and Technology at the Home Office, said his department provides this sort of service through the Police Online Knowledge Area (POLKA). 

“If we want to roll out a new piece of kit and get input from police forces,” Strydom reported, “we go onto [the POLKA] discussion [forum] and invite comments.” This helps the Home Office refine its offer, building on feedback from end users. Strydom said there are plans to roll the facility out to other partners, and to the wider business community. 

That said, he acknowledged that the process won’t be entirely straightforward:  “People are happy with email correspondence but don’t want to log in [to a forum].” Nonetheless, he speculated that industry partners may be more willing to interact in this way, not least because it provides a means of gaining “inside information” about the government’s plans. 

In many ways, this represents the nub of the debate, exemplified by the opportunities that modern technology offers to engage citizens in services. On the whole, the public responds well to being involved, relishing the chance to interact with the government, gaining insight into, and shaping, the public sector’s work.

This needn’t wrest power away from the centre, however, as Paula McDonald from the Cabinet Office concluded. “Central government should be steering rather than rowing,” she said, “nudging things in the right direction and really empowering people to manage locally.”

If that sounds like a now-familiar mantra, it just goes to show how things have moved on in the last five years. Because, while the Big Society may be no more than a discarded piece of political rhetoric, the idea of co-produced services in which the public plays an integral role looks very much as if it’s here to stay.  

Around the table:

Sue Buzzeo, project manager, Change Directorate, Rural Payments Agency
Paula McDonald, deputy director, Public Bodies Reform Team, Cabinet Office
Sue Holloway, director of services strategy, Northgate Public Services
Stuart Armstrong, strategy advisor, Central Customer & Strategy Directorate, Central Tax & Strategy, HM Revenue & Customs
Danielle Cox, system improvement manager, Ofgem
Fiona Kilpatrick, head of employer engagement, Health, Disability & Employment Directorate, Department for Work & Pensions
Barend Strydom, project manager, Centre for Applied Science & Technology, Home Office
Ian Moules, agents compliance manager, Business Customer & Strategy, HM Revenue & Customs
Richard Vize, round table chair, Dods
Patrick Donohoe, head of modelling, Government Property Unit, Cabinet Office

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