Public services as a whole are embarking on an extended period of austerity – I think most people are well aware of this in the sector. Outside the sector the press is cottoning on but I feel the wider public has yet to realise the full impact.
This is the new normal. Robin Millar from the Centre for Social Justice gave iNetwork members this stark message at our summer conference when he said “if you’ve 10-15 years left in public service employment the chances are the whole of it will be spent in a period of austerity”.
Whilst that is very depressing in many ways, the sector does need to change. It is painfully clear to many vulnerable people that whilst individual services might be excellent, the whole is badly fragmented and disjointed.
This is part of the reason that the current model is unaffordable and doesn’t work in places. Decades of policy decisions have also had the unintended consequence of created a culture of dependency. A key challenge being considered by Government and locally by many organisations is how to manage an orderly withdrawal of public services and generate stronger communities and social capital in the gaps left behind.
There is a much truth in the fact that it often takes a crisis to instigate radical change – President Obama’s former chief of staff memorably made the statement “too good a crisis to waste”. To use the cliché, the issue now is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Part of the answer is going to be whole place community budgets of the type being piloted in Cheshire West and Chester and across Greater Manchester and also in Essex and West London.
Broadly speaking the principle of this approach is deconstruction of artificial demarcation lines between local government, NHS, police, and Fire and Rescue Services by joining up their funding into a single pot for a sub-region. In theory this takes away some of the perverse incentives and service failure that occurs in the gaps between organisations with separate objectives.
The result of this failure to join up delivery has been well described in the press as the cost of providing support services to a particularly troubled family in Salford. Extrapolating across the country 120,000 troubled families are estimated to cost over £9 billion a year to the public purse.
Ministerial decisions will be taken over the coming months as to whether to back this model. The challenges are very significant but the opportunity is historic, influencing the way that that whole sector operates. We may be looking at a new dawn, or it, and we, may just go quietly into the night. As they say, “watch this space”.