Opinion: The open public services agenda is moving at a crawl, says John Cridland

Last July, I helped to launch the Open Public Services white paper alongside the prime minister. The CBI welcomed the government’s pledge to open up every public service to new providers, but warned that the government would have to be bold to make its ambition a reality.


By Civil Service World

12 Apr 2012

Examining the recent update on the white paper (see news, p3), it is apparent that little has changed in nine months and the government needs to do more to achieve meaningful progress.
To successfully tackle the deficit and rebalance the economy, we need leaner, fitter public services. Dependence on public services doesn’t change just because the fiscal climate is tough. Quite the reverse: we need education, welfare-to-work and other services to raise their game.

Government should not see financial constraint as a barrier to reform. Rather, ministers and civil servants should use financial pressures as a spur to consider what new approaches can be adopted to maintain service outcomes at reduced cost.

The government can and should be much bolder in its thinking on public service reform, and recognise the role that the private sector can play in helping to drive change. The CBI has consistently called for a level playing field for all providers of public services, whether they are public bodies, businesses or voluntary organisations. Of course, in-house teams are sometimes the best-placed providers, but there are many public services that could be delivered more effectively and at lower cost by the private sector.

Some departments are moving faster and further than others. Broadening the diversity of provision in the schools system through the academies and free school programmes has been encouraging. The Work Programme is another example of progress. While there’s still a lot to do to make the programme a success, we should welcome a model which sees businesses and charities innovating to improve service quality and save money, with rewards only for their results.

Steps to extend outcomes-based commissioning to other areas such as reducing re-offending are also welcome, and the competition strategy from the Ministry of Justice should help deliver better outcomes and value for money for the government and the public purse.

However, there’s plenty of room for improvement in other areas. The health reforms have become bogged down, and moves by some police forces to engage the expertise of commercial partners have met with fervent opposition.

Similarly, the government has not yet delivered on its procurement reform promises. We need increased transparency, simplifying the design of procurement contracts, and a more outcome-focused and flexible approach to commissioning.

Local authorities have to do more too. Councils spend more than £50bn a year on commissioning, but many services remain closed to independent providers. Nervousness about the private sector stands in the way of further progress.

Central government and local authorities should also be working to share the delivery of services in a way that improves efficiency and saves money. The CBI has estimated that shared services could deliver savings of up to £2bn a year in the 150 top-tier councils in England. This approach shouldn’t be restricted to back office functions; frontline services such as social care, street cleaning and customer services could also benefit.

Community budgets offer another opportunity to dramatically improve service quality, while eliminating duplication and waste. Rather than seeing separate budgets for health, police, welfare and housing, funds should be pooled to secure desired outcomes such as reducing unemployment or crime.

We need to develop a model that shows how spending by one public body can generate savings for a different organisation, such as the NHS or the police. By mapping savings across the public sector we can show public bodies that joining up spending on programmes outside their core responsibility can generate savings for themselves.

Public service reform should not be viewed as a threat, but an opportunity to secure a fundamental improvement in the way services are provided to the public. The challenge is significant, but if we can make progress in this Parliament then the long-term benefits to the government and the taxpayer will be considerable.

The CBI hopes the government’s next update on its white paper will reveal more meaningful progress towards its own ambition of open public services in every sector. Real public service reform requires continued leadership, commitment and energy. Business is ready to play its part.

John Cridland is director-general of the Confederation of British Industry

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