The reform of public services: the One Nation agenda

 In Croydon, Speeches

In collaboration with the One Nation group of Labour MPs, Renewal has been organising
a series of seminars on the emerging politics of One Nation Labour.  Steve Reed spoke at a seminar on how to build One Nation public services in April 2014.

I’ve been a Member of Parliament for just over two years now, so I’m one of the newer MPs. I was elected at a by-election. Before that I was the Leader of Lambeth Council, which I think makes me one of the very few Labour MPs who has been running public services under the present period of austerity.

Of course, the financial crisis means that you have to think about doing things differently if you don’t want to just cut services and withdraw them from the people who are using them. The model we came up with in Lambeth we called ‘The Co-operative Council’, which was about finding new ways to get stronger co-operation between the users of public services and providers.

The Guardian, when they first reported this, called Lambeth ‘The first John Lewis Council.’ I think they were trying to contrast it with the easyCouncil model in Barnet. We dropped that title pretty quickly, when I saw an email discussion group going round with the title, ‘Never knowingly understood.’ I think that flags up the difficulty that we had then, that I think we still have now as a party, in finding the language and the stories to explain to people exactly what we’re trying to do, because it can seem very process-driven.

People don’t want to hear about the process by which you arrive at decisions. They want to know what you’re going to do for them and how that can change, but in this case, the process of decision-making is a critical part of getting to the right answer.

We do need, through debates like this, to work out the language and the story that makes that intelligible to people. I genuinely believe that whichever party can grasp the language as well as the concepts for this is going to determine politics for the next 10 years or more, because we face such a big question about how we shape public services to be sustainable into the future, given my starting point, which is that the current business model for public services is bust.

Now why do I say the business model is bust? There are two things that you cannot help but notice if you’re involved in the running of public services at the moment: the first is that there is a drastic reduction in resources to deliver public services, primarily funding, but other resources as well. Councils are now looking at, over the period of the comprehensive spending review, a 50 per cent reduction in the amount of money they have available.

There is not, however, a 50 per cent reduction in the number of people needing to use those public services. In fact that number has gone up. Take, for example, one of the biggest areas of spending, which is social care, trying to look after older, more vulnerable, frail people in their homes to prevent their health situations becoming health crises. As we have a bigger and bigger ageing population, demands for those services are going up.

What do you do when you’re confronted with a reduction of 50 per cent in your resources, but more people needing support? The one thing we don’t want to do is just withdraw support from half of those people who need it, because that leaves them simply to sink into positions where they can no longer cope. None of us want to preside over a community that is facing that kind of a meltdown. That is the first issue we confront. However, there was a need to look at the reform of public services even before the financial crisis hit, and in my view the reason for that is that the current model of public services, more or less the model we’ve had since the settlement that followed the Second World War, creates dependency: it creates individuals who are reliant on very high numbers of public services, particularly the more complex interventions in their lives. I’m not thinking here about bin collections. I’m thinking more about: how do you support families with multiple challenges and the communities that they’re part of that are also multiply challenged.

The way that we’ve run public services over the last few decades is that professionals, who are trained over a lifetime, take decisions about your life, your household, your community, and they impose those decisions on you because they believe it’s in your best interests. You may not feel the same. Over generations, across a whole community, that experience of people taking decisions about you, rather than with you, is extremely disempowering. It creates dependency, because over time you stop being able to be self-reliant because the ability to be self-reliant has been taken away from you by well-intentioned professionals, who have failed to involve you properly.

There are also difficulties with models of public services that see people merely as problems. We identify people based on particular issues that they’re finding challenging in their lives, and we try and deal with that particular issue rather than engaging with them, asking them what they feel is holding them back, and then trying to tie everything together to help them achieve aspirations and ambitions that they define for themselves. Indeed, by treating people as problems, we fail to identify the abilities that they have, either individually, or the capabilities that their communities have. We fail to identify their abilities and then harness them to help get those people’s lives to the place where those people would like their lives to be.

The effect is that instead of encouraging leadership at all levels in our community, we tend to stifle it and crush it. If people put their head above the parapet and try to make change happen, they’re very often met with such negativity or so many obstacles, they become frustrated and they go away. One of the things that people ask me when I talk about empowerment is: ‘if you’re empowering a community to make decisions about itself, where are you going to find the leaders?’ Well actually, we’ve stopped those leaders from emerging by the way that we run public services in the first place. Let me give you an example of that. I think the examples are more powerful when you look at some of the really big, intractable problems. In Lambeth, where I was Leader of the Council, there were big problems with violent youth gangs. On some neighbourhoods and estates, the majority of young people living there will be involved in violent youth gangs of one kind or another. This isn’t a problem that is prevalent across much of the rest of the country, but where it is a problem, it disfigures entire communities. The reasons young people get involved in gangs are many and complex. One is that, if you’re from a very poor community like that, you don’t know very many adults in full-time work.

Very often on some of the poorer estates, right in the centre of London, up to 70 per cent of adults will be workless. You’ve got young people growing up in situations like this, living in poverty because their families are on benefits. They don’t see that the opportunities of the great world city of London are available to them, like they would be to their near neighbours living on streets that are primarily owner-occupied. The gangs that are active on those estates are very often the only thing that is offering them something to belong to, where they get a sense of community, albeit the wrong kind of community. Also, they come under pressure to join a gang for their own protection, because if there are two gangs operating on an estate, Gang A and Gang  B, and you’re not a member of either, you’re subject to being attacked by either of those gangs. These are quite violent gangs. They’ll be carrying knives. They’ll have access to guns. They’ll be dealing drugs. So you join a gang partly for self-protection.

In terms of rational choice, if you’re a young person living in a community like that, this isn’t a moral decision. You make it as a rational choice because it is the best way you’ve got to protect yourself from assault by any of these gangs. Of course, once you join, you get forced to engage in the kinds of activities the gangs expect of their members, and that starts out with low-level offending, dealing drugs, fighting with members of other gangs, carrying a knife, carrying a gun, ultimately leading yourself to destruction, ruining the community that you’re part of and causing immense grief to your family and loved ones at the same time.

Now for 15 or 20 years councils with this problem have spent public money on trying to solve it. The general approach they’ve taken is to get public services to identify the young people at risk, take them away, and put them on a programme.

This is supposed to divert them away from gang activity. Then they put the young people back in the place where they came from. It has a very, very low success rate. Over that period of time, gang and youth offending of that kind with violent gangs increased rather than decreased. If you’re living on that estate, as a mother I met was, you are desperately worried when your 13-year-old son, as it was in her case, starts getting involved with one of those gangs. She knew by name children who had been killed as a result of joining gangs like this and other children whose lives had been destroyed. She wanted to know what she could do as a concerned parent to try and protect her son. She went along to her housing manager – it was a council owned housing estate – and asked what she could do to help. She was told what we too often tell citizens as public servants, which is that there’s nothing you can do.

Leave it to the professionals. They know best. However well-intentioned that was, it was wrong, because she knew the professionals didn’t know enough to stop the other kids that she was seeing getting involved in gangs lose the opportunities that should have been available to them as Londoners. What she did instead was get together with a group of other parents, church leaders, young adults who had got past the age where they themselves had been offending. Some of them had been in custody. They set up a load of activities and projects on their own to try and get these young people doing positive things that developed healthy interests and steered their lives back on track. Over a period of three years, they got 80 kids out of gangs, which was dramatically more, just on that one estate, than the Council was managing to get out of gangs across the whole borough. They did it. The only resources they had available to them was £15,000 that they got from the police when they stormed a police consultative meeting and demanded money for a football strip, for a football league they were setting up, because what they were doing was cutting crime faster than what the police were doing.

That led us to think: what if we linked the Council’s resources, hundreds of thousands of pounds, with the community’s own insights and vital interest in their own children’s futures, and brought them together? So that instead of the community whacking their heads against the wall in frustration because no-one will listen to their own views about what needs to happen, instead of fighting the system, they can fight the problem by working together.

In the case of Lambeth, they set up a youth services trust, which engages with each neighbourhood or estate on a case-by-case basis, with a consultation model that gets under the skin of the community and lets the parents and young people, offenders and victims, choose the interventions that will work in their community. They use their own intimate knowledge of the individuals, the history of the place, its geography, to shape interventions that they believe will work. They have the power and the support from professionals to choose different interventions if, over time, the ones they choose are not delivering the outcomes they want, but for the first time in decades, these people feel that they have some control over one of the biggest problems affecting their community.

That is a model of empowerment that radically changes public services to make them respond to the people who are at the sharp end of those public services, rather than the people who are sitting in offices taking decisions. It encourages local leadership. It allows people to feel that their views about their own lives matter, and it makes people feel, ‘Actually, I am worth something. If we can make change happen in this area, why can’t we make change happen in another area?’ You find that, once you start working with communities in this way, they want to have more of a say over other things that affect their lives. We’ve come up with other models based on working with people who use public services, like pooled personalised budgets, where groups of people on personalised care budgets can pool them together, giving themselves more purchasing power in the market, and forcing the market to respond to the needs that they really have, that they define for themselves, rather than ones the professionals define.

Or projects like Participle, who run a program called Backr across a swathe of South London. We’re just about to introduce it to Croydon North as well. What that does is train members of the community who are around individual unemployed people to channel information and support to them and help get them back into work. You don’t isolate the unemployed person. You use the community around them to make change happen. There’s also co-operative or tenant-managed housing. There are all sorts of models that you can look at.

The point about all of this is that you’re handing power to citizens, but within parameters. You’re not making citizens run things themselves. You’re making the professionals directly accountable to the citizens, so that public services start to respond much better to the real needs of the public. What you find is that you then shift towards outcome-focused models of public services. Instead of defending particular ways we’ve always delivered a service, you try and protect the outcome, or improve the outcome, even at a time when public resources are getting constrained.

Employees find they like it better too, because it removes tiers of bureaucracy and management from above their heads and allows them to engage directly with the users of their services in a way that allows both sides together to shape better public services as a result. We’re giving people back the power to improve their lives, but what we’re not doing is something the current government tried to do with the Big Society, which was to pull the rug away from underneath people’s feet and leave them to sink or swim. We’re not trying to roll back the state. We’re trying to change the role of the state so that it is directly accountable to the people it’s serving. As a result of doing that, even if you’re faced with a 50 per cent reduction in the funding available to you, you can still deliver far better outcomes for the people than you would have delivered if you’d simply salami sliced them. But absolutely astonishingly, in some cases, you can deliver better outcomes despite that reduced resource than you were delivering previously when the taps were turned on.

I was delighted when Ed Miliband put public service reform and empowerment – people-powered public services – at the centre of the agenda he’s shaping in his recent Hugo Young lecture. A couple of days later Jon Cruddas, who heads the policy review, expanded in much more detail in a speech to the New Local Government Network on exactly how that model will work. What we’re seeing is Labour in Westminster learning from Labour in local government, where we’ve managed to make services work better for people, despite austerity. This is helping to shape what One Nation politics is coming to mean in terms of public service reform. What it’s based on, at core, is a principle that’s always been at the heart of Labour: that is, handing power to the people, so that they can help to build the fairer and better society that we all believe in.