Brexit seems to be an inescapable feature of today’s headlines – whether it’s the fate of our EU neighbours, the Irish border or the future of businesses and international trade. However, what has gained comparatively little media scrutiny is the impact Brexit will have on our public services – an aspect that affects us all. There are over 450 public bodies in the UK that deliver our vital public services – many of these are affected by EU funding, regulations and legislation. That’s why the Public Chairs’ Forum (PCF), a membership organisation for chairs of public bodies, hosted their annual conference last week on the theme of Brexit – to provoke conversation between the leaders of our public services and the centre of government on how best to prepare for the road ahead.
Brexit is an ongoing interest of PCF and its members. This summer, in partnership with the Association of Chief Executives and Institute for Government, PCF sent out a survey to public bodies assessing how affected by Brexit they expected to be. The results were striking. While some respondents reported opportunities in gaining additional powers, many stated concerns about the level of uncertainty ahead, such as potential changes to funding streams, staffing, and limited powers to influence EU standards that may still affect their operational work. For devolved administrations, there are also big questions over how powers returning to Westminster will be shared across the UK. These themes and issues set the agenda for our conference.
So, what did we learn and what can public bodies do now?
Brexit is more than a negotiation process, it’s also about implementation
With a range of speakers across the political spectrum, such as Conservative MPs Bernard Jenkin and Dominic Grieve, Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake and SNP MP Peter Grant, conference attendees heard about a range of stances on current Brexit negotiations. However, a key focus of the day was the need to turn the government’s attention to the practical administrative elements of delivering Brexit on the ground. As public bodies take on new responsibilities, Professor Colin Talbot, academic and expert in public administration, was keen to highlight the scale of new infrastructure, IT systems and people that will be required, which he felt currently isn’t being recognised by the government.
Public bodies should plan for all eventualities
From our survey, it was clear that public service leaders want clarity as soon as possible. However, one consistent message throughout the day was that certainty isn’t expected anytime soon and public bodies should prepare for all eventualities.
As Mike Turley from Deloitte advised, “there’s no substitute for analysis”. Public bodies should be thinking about their business risks and long-term impacts to areas such as market access, customer base, supply chains, cost of infrastructure development and movement of people. Brexit has no precedent, so the government and its agencies should be keen to benefit from external expertise.
Susan Hooper, a non-executive board member in the Department for Exiting the EU and John Manzoni, the civil service chief executive, also stressed the need for prioritisation. While business must go on as usual, for now Brexit must be the priority – so public bodies will have to think about the inevitable trade-offs.
How to work with the centre
As experts in implementation, Manzoni felt public service leaders are well placed to work with the centre on how to translate Brexit policy into results. Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee also pointed out that conversations need to be based on “trust, openness and mutual support”. Both Manzoni and Jenkin prompted public bodies to take a proactive approach to working with their department to set out detailed proposals for what their organisation needs.
While these sentiments are encouraging, results from our survey in June demonstrated a mixed reception from public bodies on the level of support and engagement they are receiving from the centre. Our research on partnerships between public bodies and departments earlier this year also found that many public bodies and departments are not sharing skills and experience. But with the wealth of expertise that will be required to make Brexit a success, there is a new opportunity to work in strategic collaboration.
Brexit is an opportunity to transform
It wasn’t all uncertainty and negativity – Julia Goldsworthy, chair of the CIFPA Brexit Advisory Commission for Public Services, emphasised that there are opportunities to think transformatively about how our public services are delivered. Brexit shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum and the government and its agencies should think about how links can be made to wider agendas, such as the industrial strategy and budget negotiations.
The conference was an opportunity to air some of the uncertainties and challenges facing public bodies and think constructively about how we can address them. However, our work doesn’t end here. On 1 November, PCF ACE and IfG will bring together ALB chairs and chief executives across a range of bodies, with senior departmental sponsors, the Cabinet Office Public Bodies Reform Team and the Department for Exiting the EU to identify current gaps and develop potential actions to address them. It is vital that no matter what the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, we ensure the best possible transition to maintain high standards of public service delivery for UK citizens.