Under pressure and opening outFollow @pwc_ukgov
By Tina Hallett, Central Government Lead Partner
As public services open up, how can government set the right conditions for new and more diverse providers to succeed? This was on the agenda of a roundtable meeting we convened last Thursday with think tank Reform.
It’s the second in a series of Under Pressure roundtables examining the multiple pressures public service providers are facing – from shrinking budgets to growing demand for services and an ambitious reform agenda.
We were joined by Whitehall officials and new providers on the forefront of the Open Public Services reforms. The debate centred on a number of key questions – how can we create an environment where commissioners feel ready to take reasonable risks in backing small but innovative providers? How can capacity and capability, particularly financially, be more effectively built in smaller providers? And where and how might private and third sector organisations collaborate more effectively to deliver public services?
Much discussion focused on the variety of new models of public service delivery, particularly innovative partnerships between the private and voluntary sector such as Achievement for All as well as the associated risks. For instance, is there a risk of policy makers and shakers are identifying preferred vehicles for delivering public services before it’s really clear how the models might actually help improve public services? Answers in search of questions is never a good way of approaching things. A point was also raised on whether seeking too much innovation at once (in terms of both organisational models and how they services are financed) is asking too much of new providers.
Furthermore, there are barriers to new providers entering the public services market via the current commissioning channels. For all the talk of the need to measure and reward wider social value, providers can find that the key commissioning goal is primarily cutting costs, limiting scope for innovation and reinvestment. Another key challenge is where outcomes are sought that sit across government silos - in a climate of austerity departments will want to know that their investment will deliver bang for their buck. And there is also the risk that in the rush to encourage new providers, existing ones who have been providing for many years are neglected and overlooked. Government will need to avoid 'throwing the baby out with the bath water' which could threaten the future viability of existing third sector providers.
While the direction of travel behind much of this reform agenda pre-dates the Coalition, these are the very early days in the next stage of a more open ‘market’ for public services. It will require politicians and policy makers to hold their nerve if they are to have the chance to reap the rewards. The danger is that government assumes too much of the market, too soon. Without the necessary support and preparation, new providers will find it difficult to succeed.
Contact Tina Hallett