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‘Once in a lifetime’ chance to transform public services

31 March 2012

Create the environment for real reform of public services and infrastructure, and the private sector will deliver, claims Mark Fox

The Open Public Services White Paper setting out the government’s plans to transform the delivery and quality of public services marks the start of a new era. One that could see the private sector working more collaboratively with the public and voluntary sector to transform the way public services are delivered. However, real improvements will only occur if the government is committed to working with all potential providers.

One of the greatest challenges facing the current government is how to revolutionise the delivery of public services. Increasing demand and financial austerity places new demands on the public sector which it cannot satisfy on its own. While some may baulk at the scale of the challenge, the government must show strength of courage and recognise that it has before it a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform the way public services are delivered. Provided, that is, it recognises the valuable role the private, public, and voluntary sector can all play.

Of course, the private sector already contributes substantially to the delivery of public services. Across all areas, companies are delivering high quality and innovative support through services such as facilities management and back office functions. But, while this support will remain essential, the scale of the challenge facing public services demands a far more ambitious response.

It is time for the UK to embrace a new vision for our public services: one that is fairer; one that promotes opportunity and economic growth; one that sees the private, public and voluntary sector working together and cooperatively to give British taxpayers the very best public services and infrastructure. New providers can improve quality and choice and, most importantly for the public purse, value for money. But they need to be given the opportunity to do so.

To achieve this, we need greater leadership. The government must demonstrate its confidence in, and support for, the private sector and their ability to deliver public services. All too often, attempts to increase choice and competition in the public sector have failed because of ideology. Attitudes to private sector participation continue to limit any hope of a fully open and competitive public services market. Yet the result for the public is to limit the quality and choice they can enjoy, and it is the public after all who are at the heart of these reforms and should remain the government’s number one priority.

The current set of reforms demands an answer to one fundamental question, what is state’s role in the delivery of public services? To restrict who should be allowed to deliver public services, or to seek the best deal for users? Current economic challenges demand a new approach to how we think about public services and how they are delivered, including an open discussion about the added value the private sector can bring.

Of course, attitudes cannot be changed overnight and there remains a continuing duty on the private sector to assure the public that it can deliver quality services. However, there is also a need for government to state unequivocally that its role is to set policy and to allow commissioners to decide who is best able to provide services. The challenges facing our public services means the government and the public sector must not discriminate about who they are willing to work with.

Take health. Estimates suggest that £20 billion of efficiency savings will be needed across the health system over the course of this Parliament in order to meet increasing demand for health services. The majority of this demand is due to the UK’s increasingly ageing population. Even the most radical overhaul of the NHS will not be sufficient to meet current challenge. It must be matched with genuine opportunities for the private sector and third party providers to work in co-operation with the public sector in order to deliver services that best meet patients’ needs. This requires more than a new framework and incentives, but a new culture and openness across government. One that enables outside providers to support the public sector’s most important function; to deliver essential front line services.
Often the private sector is already delivering these services; NHS pharmacies are typically run by private sector providers but under the umbrella of the NHS. What matters most to patients is not who processes their prescriptions, but that they get good services. The same philosophy should apply to all areas of the public sector. It should not matter who delivers a public service, but that public services offer the best choice, quality and value for the public. This must be the government’s overriding objective.

This will all take time. The government has introduced a wide range of reforms to open up how public services are delivered; reforms that may not all take effect straight away. Equally important will be reforms to the procurement process and improving the skills and abilities of procurement officers responsible for buying services. Throughout this work, however, one underlying message must be clear: that the private sector can deliver public services.
The government is correct when it claims that transforming public services is a progressive cause and that by improving public services they will help those with most need. The most vulnerable are more concerned with the stability in public services at a time of economic uncertainty, rather than ideology about who provides them with the support upon which they depend. If the government is committed to this agenda and is serious about transforming public services, it must recognise the valuable role the private sector can offer.
Mark Fox is Chief Executive of the BSA

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