Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Four Threats To Public Service Reform

Here’s a fun, blog post experiment with a pretty audacious goal: let’s all progress the reform of public services.

In this week’s post I want to outline what I think are the four main threats to public service reform and by pooling our collective brain power I think we can come up with some effective suggestions. Then in next week’s post I’ll outline some solutions. At that point we should probably notify the appropriate authorities that we've fixed everything and it will be put right. Sound good? Don’t forget to comment below on the blog, reach me on Twitter, or on my email of – otherwise I’m going to have my work cut out!

The current government have delivered a fairly consistent narrative on the subject of public service reform. Their philosophy has been to decentralise and put the power and control in the hands of the communities. The reason for this is that they maintain that it is the people – not the politicians or the professional classes – who are the ones who best know what works. The logic runs that it is only by harnessing consumer forces that reform can be achieved, much as the recent Social Market Foundation report stated.

As an aside the biggest potential threat to achieving real change is that we have a government that is nearly half way through its term of office – and they have many things on their plate. Top of their list has to be the worsening economy – the dreaded double-dip recession is here and no commentators I’ve seen suggest the unemployment figures this month were anything other than a slight pause in the overall increase. The Government says it has started to make the necessary changes needed for public service reform - which is a fair assessment. But, at the very time when their continued promotion of public service reform will be needed more than ever, might they just find that there are more important things to ensure electoral success and quietly retire from the fray leaving a part-done job?

I’m not sure there’s much we can do on this issue, other than hope that they screw their courage to the sticking-place and carry on. Assuming they do, then there are four key problems that must be solved and it's these that I would like your thoughts on:

1) The culture of commissioners who hide behind procurement "rules" and strip out cost at the expense of long-term value. What needs to be done to change that mindset?
2) The vested interests of the current cohort of providers whose business models are profoundly threatened by such a change. Is there really appetite for a more market-driven public service sector, where organisations that run out of road no longer get thrown a lifeline?

3) The short-termist goals pursued by the profit driven, private sector organisations who are the new default delivery model. Does the claimed efficiency that they bring really make the profits they take out a fair exchange for the public purse?

4) The asymmetry of information - with the public being handed the purchasing power, but told nothing (other than perhaps the most rudimentary cost data) to enable them to assess the value of alternative choices. How do we make those choices more informed?

These are four supertanker-sized ships, at risk of powering in all the wrong directions. How do we stop them and set them on the right course? How would you address them? 

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

How Would You Choose Between Tenants?

So, Frank Field is off down a familiar path, gaining attention and headlines for his views about the purpose of social housing. People who have paid their “rent and taxes” should be prioritised he says, thereby excluding in one sweeping statement all those philanthropists who have the marginal tax rate of a gnat who are currently seeking a social housing home. But I somehow feel that his comments are driven rather more by his concerns over immigrants than by my concerns about the future of charitable giving. It's funny, we seem to have a Government intent on demonising both immigrants and philanthropists, when in fact they both serve useful, indeed arguably, essential, purposes.

It is perhaps predictable that some quarters have poured scorn on Mr Field’s ideas, but I can’t help thinking that there is a good case to look much more closely at the methods used to prioritise social housing – not least as the Localism Act and the changed regulatory environment allows providers much more scope. It's always been something of a puzzle to me that government policy should focus so much more on the provision of new housing than the better use of existing stock. New lettings made in existing stock accommodate far more people each year than first lettings in new stock. It is those re-lets that shape the current state and future projections for the character of an area – the more so where social housing is the majority tenure. Add to that the impact that welfare reform will have on the housing choices made by Universal Credit dependent people of working age and there has never been more opportunity (and need) for the sector to think differently.
Who should decide on who gets housing? And how?

Mr Field’s ideas of a “good citizen test” to sit alongside (or even ahead of) tests of housing need is only one idea about how to change the way we prioritise our housing. At Trafford Housing Trust we are just starting our own exercise to look, from scratch, at who we aim to house and why. It's an exercise that asks some searching questions: should we move away from our council heritage as a “universal landlord” and more actively seek a particular type of tenant – perhaps those who are actively seeking to get, or get back into employment? Should we take more notice of prospective tenants ability to pay? Should we prioritise the needs of our existing customers over the needs of those we do not yet provide a home for? What part should people currently living in the area play in determining who their new neighbours should be?

The mechanics of the process need looking at too. I’m incredulous that even under our Choice Based bidding system, where prospective tenants bid for a home, we still get people turning it down when they are offered the very home they’ve bid for. I know that time-wasters are a regular problem for eBay sellers, but, really, for a new home? Landlords also generally use some variant of a process designed to allocate a  scarce public resource to choose between potential tenants – something more redolent of the ration queues of wartime than the consumer-driven world of today.

In amongst all of the changes that are going on in housing I hear more discussion, and more passion, about how the development of new homes can be continued than about how they should be let and re-let once built. We need to pay more attention to the lettings question and ensure it is properly aired at local and national level. Hats off to Mr Field for continually raising this issue, but if his is the only voice in that debate we are likely to end up with the wrong outcome.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Localism In Trafford

Regular readers of this blog (and as we're coming up to the 20,000 reader barrier, I assume there are a few who read regularly) will know that I've mentioned before about the fantastic work we help support in Trafford that contributes to wider social, economic and environmental improvement for local communities (obviously, if you're not a regular reader you might like to see the posts here, here and here). Of our £1 million plus annual spend, the vast majority goes through our five community panels. These consist of local residents who prioritise and select projects on the basis of their knowledge of what's needed locally.

We've been doing this localism, long before the Localism Act brought it to the fore and we've been making social impact long before the Public Services (Social Value) Act (for a guide to this read the excellent one produced here) made it mandatory for Public Service Commissioners to fully consider value as well as cost in coming to their decisions.

These panels have though, up until now, been working in their own way, without much contact with the rest of the borough's communities. It's encouraging to see that, as localism turns from theory in Whitehall to delivery on the ground, the existing structures that have been delivering on the ground are getting more support and being brought together. The recent Trafford Partnership event brought our community panel members together with many representatives of other local interests and it was great to see how some well-informed plans and common-sense ideas for priorities started to emerge.

As an aside, the event also marked the contributions of key volunteers and it was brilliant to see Mary Blackburn, one of our tenants, receive due recognition from Trafford's Mayor. Mary, "Scary" Mary as she asks to be known, has more ideas than your average Einstein and more energy than a windfarm. Of advancing years, her zest for life remains undimmed - and as a former professional wrestler, she's certainly a daunting prospect to those in authority who might choose to stand in her way.

The ideas from the Trafford Partnership Event have already been written up and our panels are looking forward to the challenge of delivering these new priorities. I spoke with our panel Chairs and Vice Chairs recently (well, actually, they wanted me to rehearse what I was going to say at their forthcoming conference - and I'm pleased to say I passed!) and they are incredibly pleased that their work has now been recognised and that they now count among the Community Leaders of our borough.

But that's not all that's happening to help make better local places. The Trafford-wide 100 days of Volunteering has seen unprecedented community involvement across the borough, the Council has announced its £200,000 budget for community groups and our panels are looking, excitedly, at how to distribute their £700,000 this year. It's not that austerity has gone away, but in amongst those difficulties, with renewed leadership, an increasingly engaged Trafford Partnership and some money with which to start to make a difference, there are some real signs that localism, at least in Trafford, has some kind of a future.