NAVCA Blog - posted in August 2011
The following blogs were posted in August 2011.
Who can argue against the proposition that services should be more tailored to individual needs and aspirations, that control and choice should be in the hands of the person using the service as far as possible? No-one of course, and therein lies one of the tricky aspects of the OPSWP. The argument is beguiling and plays to our consumer culture of buying what we need and want and expecting a certain amount of choice.
But this approach is missing the most important element of our services - namely the 'public'. For all the faults and deficiencies that are part of our current system of public services; as members of the public we feel a sense of ownership. This is because we fund services even if we don't use them, we know that we may need to use them one day even if we don't now, and we see that good public services provide a general benefit to all of us simply as members of the same society. Public services mean that a public body has provided or commissioned them and is accountable for the 'public' in a direct way. Local authorities are locally elected and accountable. Their decisions about services take into account local needs, priorities and the broader context in which the service operates. Those decisions can, to some degree at least, be influenced, challenged and scrutinised by citizens, precisely because the service is funded through taxation. What will happen to that if the majority of services are purchased by individuals, as set out in the Open Public Services White Paper?
One scenario is the loss of opportunity to embed a wider social value into our public services. At the moment public bodies are being encouraged to think about the wider value of their purchasing decisions, not least in local services. For example, when they commission a domiciliary care service for older people they can consider what wider benefit that service can achieve in addition to the basic service. Can it, for example, build social capital, or address isolation or even reduce the local carbon footprint? The public body will consider and prioritise the issues of most importance for a local community.
When a citizen purchases their own individual services they will, quite rightly, make those decisions based on their own requirements and priorities, not what the local community needs. Since there is no real public aspect to this kind of purchasing, the individual approach will leave out the wider social value entirely. Providing or commissioning a truly public service can only be done by a public body. The total sum of decisions made by a large number of individuals does not amount to the same thing, and we must make sure that the public aspect is not lost as a consequence of individual purchasing. We need to be on our guard against the very real danger that opening up public services will see the erosion of the 'public' from our public services. If that happens we may have to start thinking in terms of Closed Private Services.