The latest discussions on the ‘Open Public Servcies’ agenda has recently seen the focus shift from the market vs public service provision axis to a more inclusive focus on how public services can be remodelled or designed, to widen and encourage more active citizenship participation and be overall more accountable to the public. This welcome shift is evident in the joint John Cruddas and Stella Creasey article in the New Statesman, where they say:
“Labour’s policy review is looking at how we reform the public sector by devolving power to people, investing in prevention and incorporating cooperation and collaboration in the co-commissioning and design of services”
UNISON has always supported creative and innovative ways to drive up the quality of services and put users and citizens at the heart of local service delivery. The lessons we have learnt over the last thrity years from public service reform however is that reform has to be much more holistic and far reaching than just the emphasis on service user commissioning participation, co – production or co-design. There are three key areas where public service reform would both complement and reinforce the role of the citizen at the heart of public services, utilise social partnerships in the co -operation and collaboration of local services and place citizen rights safely in the context of that social partnership.
Firstly collaboration and social partnership in public service delivery needs to be extended to include employer responsibility and the value of employees’ roles in the delivery of servcies. There are many ways in which this could be done. We now have the new EU Public Procurement Directive (January 2014) which allows for the first time provisions affirming that contracting authorities may introduce social considerations throughout the procurement process as long as these are linked to the subject matter of the contract. It will allow public authorities to give preference to bidders that offer better working conditions to their workers, such as limiting zero hour contracts or giving employees the living wage and favour the integration of disabled and disadvantaged workers and provide in – work progression and training and skill development.
The importance of this is that service users and citizens employed locally can now request the use of the new public procurement framework to ensure that it benefits themselves as both local service users and local employees. A simple example of this is the Ethical Care charter produced by UNISON. It calls for contracting authorities to adopt the charter and by doing so provide decent standards in employment terms and conditions for care staff. Under the new procurement rules this can now to be incorporated into all public procurement contracts. The growing adoption of the care charter shows that the link between good employment practices and quality services is seen as a top priority for citizens rather than the emphasis being just on the diversity or choice of providers in local service provision.
Secondly flexible design of service delivery which is able to respond to iterative feedback from service users and citizens needs to be based on a more transparent and responsive public procurement and commissioning regime. More authrorites are moving back to in-house service provision as it is seen to be more likely to be able to provide that flexibiliy than outsourcing services with large and lengthy contracts. There has been a growing general unease that the axsis “public bad – private good” narrative no longer fits the task ahead which is to provide quality public servcies with curerntly less money but also redmodel service provision by placing the citizen at the core of servcie desgin and delivery and remove the public feeling of a democratic deficit in public services. UNISON has presented evidence to both the Communities and Local Government and the Public Administration Select Committees demonstrating with case studies the growing non-compliance and lack of scrutiny and transparency in commissioning practices and the growing problems of liability and fraud issues in faling contracts. UNISON set out a list of recommendations placing the rights of the public at the heart of public procurement scrutiny. The malaise of the UK open publc service reform predicates on the fact that using an outdated model of outsourcing is no longer compatible with the new modern public procurement approach – a winning low price to win a public contract being placed above social and sustainable factors will no longer wash.
The UK Public Accounts Committee last month echoed this very clearly in its report Contracting out public services to the private sector which set out recommendations on five areas for improvement.
These included widening the scope for an FOI provision to be included in standard contract terms for private companies so that costs, revenues and profits were open to the public,reducing the monopoly of the ‘big company players’ dominating outsourcing and improve the high ethical standards expected in public service delivery.
UNISON will now call for clearer guidance on the use of the new EU Public Procurement Directive provision which gives public authorities the right to provide services directly (without going to competition first) and sets out the legal framework for both ‘in-house’ and ‘public-public cooperation’. The Scottish Government may be the first to take advantage of this in their new Public Procurement Bill.
Thirdly investing in preventative services will require funding. Providing information, advice and guidance to assist ‘consumers’ in navigating confusing choices in health and social care services or making inquiries into the new welfare reforms such as Universal Credit means funding existing public service providers and the voluntary and community sector to provide these local support servcies.
Currently UNISON has 20,000 expert housing benefit officers whose skills could be adapted and used to provide the independent advice needed locally, and with a human touch via a local welfare hub, to help citizens navigate the wide reaching welfare reforms whether in work or out of work.
Its not just public services however that need funding. In November 2013 UNISON surveyed over 3,000 community, voluntary and housing workers across the UK found that as austerity has bitten, funding for these contracts has been squeezed to breaking point and UNISON is now warning that whilst charities are reputable and trusted by the public, they do not have a magic wand, so cuts are putting vulnerable people at risk.
The survey’s findings exposed that services for our most vulnerable people in society are “hanging by a thread” because of dangerously underfunded services that are leading to hardship as well as exposing children and the disabled to risk.
Its clear from this report that a major rethink in our attitude to the third sector is needed. The current sink or swim philosophy towards the community sector is leading to a struggle for survival. Almost unnoticed by the public, many charities have become increasingly financially dependent on winning contracts from the public sector and as a consequence the ‘race to the bottom’ to win contracts has had adverse effects on both service provision and employee terms and conditions.
Placing the citizen at the core of public local service delivery at a time of austerity cuts, low pay and public service freezes whilst attempting to remodel public services for the future needs to be done right. Underpinning public service delivery on a social partnership model within an improved modern procurement and commissioning framework, taking account of good employment practices and citizens rights will ensure that public collective services benefits all in the community and further widens democratic participation in public service design and delivery.
Allison Roche is a policy officer at UNISON