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Modern and mutual: How do we put people in control of public services?

This article appeared on ProgressOnline as a report on a session at Progress Annual Conference 2011:

The odd blend of vague fudge and cynical spin that sums up the ‘big society’ inevitably blurs Labour’s response. Different strands of Labour, from the Co-operative Party to the thoughts of Tessa Jowell, Maurice Glasman and Blue Labour, have sought to find mutual solutions to public service challenges in a world shaped by consumer attitudes, an aging society and economic downturn.

At this year’s Progress Annual Conference, a morning session chaired by Anna Turley of ProgLoc sought to give a platform to these issues, although it was frequently diverted along the old themes of public service reform: balancing rights and responsibilities; choice and personalisation; and reform for reform’s sake.

Nick Pearce of the ippr gave an evidence-based argument for continued reform and the need for progressives to lead that reform to build financially sustainable public services with three principles. First, as circumstances change, we must make strategic choices about which services to invest in. Nick suggested affordable childcare; helping people back to work; and education. Second, financial efficiency must be integral to reform. Third, we need to learn from Labour’s overly managerial target-driven approach in government with a state seen as too distant and managerial, and trust people to fashion their own services.

Liz Kendall MP said Labour must support continued change – we cannot afford to be painted as anti-reform, only on the side of producers. Labour has much to be proud of in government, not least the NHS, but our health service tailors to a world that is no longer with us and must be reformed to deliver more. Liz emphasised the need for structures that allow the public to take responsibility for themselves for their health and passionately advocated the choice agenda – choice being most popular among those who have most loyally voted Labour.

Cllr Steve Reed, leader of Lambeth’s ‘Co-operative Council’ outlined a vision of local government that embraces new ways of delivering services alongside self-reliant empowered communities. Traditional top-down public services no longer work in communities that are less homogenous with greater expectations. Steve highlighted the efforts of Mimi Asher, a single mum from Brixton who, with her neighbours, helped young people out of gangs and put their lives back on track – a story Steve expands on in these pages. With a small amount of public investment, Mimi achieved more than government alone. By giving communities power, Steve’s vision sees more efficient spending and better outcomes, a new settlement between citizen and state.

Ben Page brought a note of caution to the debate – the public’s cynicism of the ‘big society’ and ‘empowerment’ as a constant refrain rarely practised. Volunteering barely increased in the Labour years; surveys are everywhere in modern services yet the public still feel they have not been consulted. There is not a settled view about what the minimum is that the state should provide and how autonomy and localism can accommodate equality of opportunity.

Labour must control the public service reform agenda and shape services that meet modern circumstances and expectations. It’s clear that the tensions of Labour in government still affect our responses now. Are mutual solutions to be developed because they represent a way for individuals to shape their own services as consumers? Or are they collectivist responses that bring democracy and accountability to remote public services, building a sense of ownership across communities for the institutions that bind us together. It is clear that the joke that the ‘big society’ is fast becoming risks infecting our own approaches, and wider discussion is needed to ensure we have a clear bold vision of an empowering state working alongside citizens.

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