With Brexit consuming Westminster it’s hard to get attention for much else going on in government, but a quiet revolution is underway in how we think about improving public services. Unlike previous reform agendas there’s no overarching framework, no Cabinet Office whitepaper, and no prime ministerial speech setting out the five steps to “world class public services”. Instead, a radical new agenda is emerging not from the top, but from ordinary public servants and the communities they serve.
The sense that public services are giant machines to be finely tuned by expert policymakers at the top is fading. In its place is a mindset that borrows from fields as diverse as network theory and political economy to reveal public services as the complex, evolving systems that they truly are.
While the new agenda is, by nature, dispersed and multifaceted, a single, simple idea provides a unifying thread. Rather than focusing on driving service improvements directly from the top-down, the aim is to cultivate the conditions from which the best solutions are most likely to emerge. The emphasis is on enablement rather than control – and the implications are profound.
An enablement mindset
The distinction between policy and delivery is being challenged as the focus shifts to continuous experimentation and improvement based on citizens’ needs. For example, the pioneering work of OneTeamGov is eschewing traditional hierarchies and departmental boundaries to connect diverse groups of public servants with the aim of radically reforming the public sector through practical action. Since 2017, the movement has grown from a small group of Whitehall officials to thousands of participants in dozens of countries around the world influenced by internet-era models.
Notions of centralised control and management are being upended by self-managing teams. Take the growing interest in the Buurtzorg model of community nursing, first developed in the Netherlands, which hands control to small teams of nurses. Each team takes responsibility for 50-60 patients in a community and can decide how best to organise themselves. There are no targets or best practices imposed from above, instead, the focus is solely on the needs of patients. Buurtzorg, which means “neighbourhood care” in Dutch, has so far delivered far higher patient and staff satisfaction and lower costs.
Instead of dictated standards and one-size-fits-all solutions, there’s renewed focus on strengthening the capacity of people to solve problems for themselves, often in unique and unexpected ways. That’s why those in arrears with council tax payments in Gateshead are being invited to chat rather than sent a bailiff’s letter. Understanding the circumstances of each case creates the opportunity to design bespoke solutions that are more likely to offer sustainable solutions and prevent problems reoccurring.
Rather than a purely technocratic vision there’s a renewed recognition of the importance of political engagement, public trust and local accountability. Opening up decision-making – through new forms of participatory democracy like citizens’ assemblies, for example – not only encourages more nuanced and less polarised debate but also helps to increase the legitimacy of public institutions themselves.
A Brexit dividend?
In Whitehall there’s a sense of building momentum around the nexus of these ideas. The moment feels right for fresh thinking about our public services, and trends such as the growth of artificial intelligence only serve to reinforce the sense of accelerating change. But there’s also a recognition that this isn’t about quick fixes given the profound nature of the changes implied.
The enablement mindset represents a radical shift in authority, accountability and agency from those at the top to those lower down the system. It argues for humility about what can be achieved when power is aggregated, and challenges us to raise our expectations about what can be achieved through collaboration and cooperation.
Reimagining services along these lines will require a generational effort comparable to the formation of the welfare state itself. Challenging existing power structures and hierarchies will be far from easy, but here, perhaps, Brexit may provide an unexpected helping hand.
Whatever happens next, we are entering a period of national transformation and renewal. The opportunity to radically rethink government itself is arguably closer, and more urgent, than it has been for a generation.