Open Public Services White Paper July 2011
‘Open Public Services’, the White Paper on public service reform was finally published on 11 July 2011. As the title suggests, the focus of the paper is on how to open up the delivery of public services to a wider pool of providers. In his speech to launch the paper, the Prime Minister declared; “From now on, diversity is the default in our public services.” The paper’s content is based on a mixture of previously announced legislation and policy initiatives, with the attempt to create a more coherent narrative on public services in general.
The White Paper was originally due for publication in January 2011 but was delayed following protracted inter-departmental discussions and negotiations with employer bodies. An indication of the nature of such debates was provided by the BBC news report of a leaked memo from Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude in which he described “wholesale outsourcing to the private sector” as “unpalatable”. The paper also follows the ‘Modernising Commissioning’ Green Paper and consultation launched in December 2010. Such setbacks have meant that the paper was keenly anticipated by many, with the hope that it would give a clearer sense of direction to the nature of public services over the coming years.
The paper takes aim at the ‘old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you-are-given’ model of service delivery. Such a model, it argues, has failed to deliver a significant improvement in social outcomes, despite major financial investment. Under the proposed delivery model, the state will instead be restricted to the role of overseeing core standards and entitlements, ensuring equality of access, and setting the level of funding for services.
Five key principles underpin the White Paper:
(iv) Fair Access
There are three levels of service to which these reforms will be applied – those used on an individual basis (e.g. education and adult social care); those provided for a neighbourhood (e.g. recreation facilities and community safety); and those commissioned at a local or national level out of necessity (e.g. tax collection and emergency healthcare). The extent of reform intends to appropriately reflect the level of service.
A ‘presumption in favour of individual choice’ is to be introduced to public services, with more control for service users through the greater use of direct payments and personal budgets. This presumption will involve investigating the possibility of legislating to bring together existing rights to choice and the creation of a framework to extend this to new areas. It is also proposed to explore whether the failure to provide choice might constitute a form of maladministration.
Where an individual is denied access to a choice of service they will be entitled to a means of redress through Ombudsmen (the main ones being the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman; Local Government Ombudsman; and Housing Ombudsman). Such Ombudsmen will be enabled to investigate complaints, promote local resolution and specify remedial action. Plans are also under development to explore Ombudsmen’s powers of enforcement and the resources necessary to carry out this expanded role.
The Government intends to explore how to decentralise the provision of services to a neighbourhood level (i.e. through a parish, town or community council). This will apply to services relating to the local public realm, leisure and community activity, including street improvements; local libraries, museums and arts; sports, parks and leisure facilities; and lower-level anti-social controls. Such decentralisation will need to fit into a local scheme of delegation, developed in consultation between the local authority and neighbourhood councils, with a national framework in place to cover issues of finance and accountability. Where such neighbourhood councils do not exist, the plan is to explore how they can be established, including the conversion of existing ‘neighbourhood forums’.
An ‘open commissioning’ policy will be introduced whereby commissioners will need to ‘seek and fully consider’ a minimum of three providers per service and may be challenged by potential providers on the future shape of a service. A consultation is set to take place on how to establish credible accreditation bodies for public services and all providers will need to meet basic quality requirements enforced by appropriate inspectors or regulators. The paper states, however, that such regulation must occur ‘without stifling innovation or adding unnecessary cost’. Proposals are also afoot to explore the applicability of the Foundation Trust model to services outside of the NHS and whether voluntary sector organisations might acquire current public sector provision that could benefit from being run as a specialised charity.
Public service reform will follow a market-based approach but within certain limits. The paper acknowledges the need to ‘tilt the playing field’ in order to ensure that the most vulnerable or disadvantaged gain additional support. This is set to occur through the use of financial incentives and regulatory interventions. Most current examples of this are in the education sector such as the Pupil Premium, bursary for 16–19 year-old learners, or the National Scholarship Programme, in which funding is strictly targeted to the most disadvantaged.
Accountability is to come from several sources - service users, democratically-elected officials, audit and inspection bodies, representative professional bodies, and independent consumer champions. This latter group, independent consumer champions (such as the website Which?), is intended to have an increased role in speaking out on service users’ behalf, acting as ‘agitators for choice’. The principle of accountability will extend to all organisations in receipt of public funds, regardless of whether they commission services from others or provide them directly. In line with this, the Government intends to consult on whether all providers should be subject to the same transparency requirements.
A ‘right to data’ is to be introduced via the Protection of Freedoms Bill. This will make information on the performance of public services publicly available, including standardised datasets on how much services cost to run, the amount providers are being paid, and whether those providers are meeting user needs. Every government department will commence work with the Cabinet Office to produce an action plan in November 2011 for improving the quality and comparability of such data.
‘Continuity of Service’ plans will be introduced to cover the failure of particular public services. Such plans will consider factors such as the nature of the service provided, the vulnerability of service users, and the ability of other partners to step in. This will take place within agreed timescales with a ‘carefully selected list’ of existing data to identify failure. There will also be ‘severe consequences’ for management and others involved in the governance of the failed provider. This work will be led across government departments by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.
Finally, there are a couple of notable references to skills included in the White Paper. Firstly, skills is listed as one of the areas in which the Government intends to consult with local bodies, providers and other key stakeholders about the potential to decentralisation of commissioning. Secondly, the paper announces the intention to run a new consultation on further education and skills. This will cover how education and training can be more focused on individual business sector requirements and localised demand, and will provide further details on the next stage of the Skills Strategy. The date for these consultations has yet to be announced.
Responses from within the voluntary sector have been guarded so far, with plenty of recommendations on how to take the agenda forward.
- CAF have called for the Government to ensure that commissioners at all levels are “truly empowered” to take risks and value social impact over pure cost considerations, and that organisations can access the working capital needed to compete on a level playing field.
- Co-ops UK have urged for caution in the creation of more public sector mutuals as issues surrounding job security and pensions require detailed resolution. If these are not resolved then the Government risks opening the door to “fake mutuals that fail basic quality tests of member ownership and democracy.”
- NCVO have insisted upon greater recognition of the voluntary sector’s wider role in identifying need, supporting people and communities to shape services, and working with other sectors to improve services.
- New Philanthropy Capital’s Head of Research, John Copps has suggested that the paper will do little to challenge the increasingly “formal and prescribed” relationship between the state and the voluntary sector. Copps also questioned whether many charities have the skills, experience or capital to deliver at the scale required.
- The Social Enterprise Coalition have warned that the proposed reforms will create an uneven playing field in which private sector providers will dominate the market due to their”stronger balance sheets and ability to attract investment”.
Despite claiming to offer a ‘comprehensive policy framework’ there is remarkably little new detail contained in the White Paper. Most of the policies referenced are taken from existing policy agendas, and in several areas (such as the contracting of further education provision or welfare-to-work services) reforms are already taking place. Further information on the funding and potential timescales for reform will need to emerge before a more detailed picture on the future of public services can appear.
The area of funding is of particular concern given the current financial climate. The White Paper promises to explore different models of financing services, such as social impact bonds or even philanthropy. Both of these suggestions are imperfect, however. Evidence suggests that the social investment market is still some way off readiness, with the Government’s own social investment strategy describing the current market as ‘embryonic’. Equally, philanthropic donations do not tend to be concentrated in key areas of public service delivery, and will need to take account of complex and multi-faceted motivations of donors.
Another issue lies with the capacity of the voluntary to deliver public services. There has recently been a loss of capacity-building initiatives for the voluntary sector and evidence suggests that available resources for learning and talent development are either remaining static or decreasing among the majority of organisations. This will put additional strain on employees at a time when many organisations are also coping with the after-effects of recent job losses. These twin issues of funding and capacity will prove a major barrier to the voluntary sector taking on a greater proportion of public services, especially given the large scale of many service contracts and the detailed requirements of payment-by-results.
The White Paper assigns a major role for open data in improving public services. As a provider the voluntary sector will need the IT literacy to be able to analyse this for their advantage, otherwise it will merely enable large private firms to secure a larger hare of the market. The need for increased accountability to users will also put extra pressure on voluntary organisations to measure and communicate their impact, ensuring organisational transparency. The increasing importance of open data also entails an ever more vital role for the voluntary sector in terms of brokering support for service users, especially the most disadvantaged. In the absence of proper funding for support and advisory services to help people navigate and use data to improve social outcomes, opening up more data will simply empower those able to find ‘pockets of excellence’ and ‘hoard opportunities and resources’.
A large amount of detail about the involvement of the voluntary sector in public services should be forthcoming with the publication of a full response to the Modernising Commissioning consultation. There were over 400 responses to this consultation, despite a very short timescale. Within the response we should expect announcements on specific issues such as the future form of the National Programme for Third Sector Commissioning and the extension of the Merlin Standard for supply chains across public services. Both of these will be essential to ensure that commissioners have the skills necessary to assess bids on the basis of cost and to ensure the fair treatment of small voluntary organisations by large private providers.
A ‘listening period’ will now take place between July and September 2011, with a website specially dedicated to gathering responses. This will then be followed in November 2011 by further details on how public service reforms are to be implemented by each individual government department, including proposals for legislation. From April 2012, departments will be required to publish regular progress reports, setting out the steps that have been taken to open public services.
 Evidence of maladministration is needed before an Ombudsman is able to investigate a case. All council services can be investigated including health, housing, planning, education, and social services.
 The paper states that this will ‘mirror the work’ of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in the health service.
 The Foundation Trust model entails a greater amount of financial and managerial freedom compared to regular state-run services.
 HM Government, Growing the Social Investment Market: A vision and strategy, February 2011
 A total of 84% of non-profit organisations have either maintained the same level of resource for learning and talent development or have decreased their resources in this area. CIPD, Learning & Talent Development Survey 2011