public service — who’s in charge?

By Eugène Delacroix — Self-photographed Sailko 2016–11–05 22:26:31, Public Domain,

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately.

We are doing a small piece of work on local systems change, and I wrote this a long, slow journey home from a PSTA transformation academy where we are helping people work on ‘shared commissioning’ around health and social care.

In both cases, when you ask people to look at ‘a system’ — map it, think about strengths, think about opportunities — the first instinct is to map ‘the agencies’. The ‘public sector’, or the whole of ‘public service’ — the bits of government, voluntary and community sector, and ‘institutional clutter’.

These are good people, capable people who have given their working lives to improving public outcomes. And they don’t discount the actual people, the Poor Sick Miserable service users who they are there to benefit — in fact, they make some trenchant point about lack of representation.

They probably have a story, like me, of the council that spent £40m on the New Deal for the Community and employed many well-meaning middle-class white graduates in interesting jobs, while contributing to the boom in laying York Stone paving slabs to the extent we had to start important York Stone from China. (And the York Stone was largely laid in areas that middle-class white people with a higher education walked through).

Not that the NDC was cynical, wrongheaded or a failure. In fact — a quick google tells me — it was a success: £1.71bn generated improvements in, apparently, 60 of 84 different measures/comparison, provided good value for money and, ‘in general’, worked well with delivery agencies, ‘especially those with a remit to help improve services within neighbourhoods’. ( Well, good.

But even that (pretty good, I have to say) evaluation report is quite telling on community engagement: ‘NDC partnerships have made immense and sustained efforts to engage with their local communities. Benefits accrue to those who get involved with their local partnership’.

You see the challenge. Almost by default, almost without noticing it, however many workshops we attend on coproduction, we are setting out our stall, and working to engage communities,. And it’s our stall, and those who are motivated/equipped/encourage from ‘the community’ to engage, get the advantages we are working so hard to give them. We, them. And we are them — except we’re not, we probably don’t live there, we probably don’t hang out with them. And every service is necessarily cocreated, because you don’t have a public service, you don’t get any public outcomes, unless the Poor Sick Miserable Person, the service user themselves, gets involved and makes it happen. But that’s not enough to really make it work.

Why does it happen, then, and what can we do about it?

Partly, I think, it’s the way we ask — the paradigm of the alms-giver, the royal courtly rituals of public services, is something in which we are deeply steeped. (To see my doctor: I must call his servants, be offered an appointment within his schedule, attend in good time, present the proper papers to his gatekeepers, attend his pleasure and availability with the other plebs in the waiting room, be called, approach the audience chamber, knock upon it, be granted entrance, and be asked to take my place upon the secondary seat before his throne. And then, there’s the quick conspiratorial flash of recognition when he sees that I represent 11 minutes of his day of communication with someone who also behaves according to middle class, higher educated norms).

Partly, I think, it’s where we are — a workshop, even in a village hall, is a long way from the bus-stop, the adventure playground, the home visit.

And, of course, it’s partly who we are — I’ve done enough broad-brush, borderline offensive and self-hating class war stuff by now that I probably don’t need to do much more. It’s not about class, except it often is, it’s not about the colour of our skin, except it often it is, age, gender, etc… but the people in the room are either the sort of people who provide public services, or the sort of people who are being co-opted into being the sort of people who provide public services.

(The opposite side, by the way, the real class warfare, self-hating, the angry, the revolutionary — even more mired and stuck in its own inverse snobbery, I think).

I don’t know what to do about it. I advocated ‘back to the floor’ exercise for, I think, about ten years before I gave it up because nobody ever did it. I do know that every time we find ourselves in a room full of well-meaning, engaged people (well-off, privileged, educated etc) who sometimes do front-line work in the places with, alongside with, the communities and individuals they care about, and who sometimes slip into thinking about the system as the agencies and services and mechanisms and offers, who sometimes talk about hard-to-reach people not taking up service offers, we have a chance. A chance to not slip into seeing ourselves as the commissioners who hold the power, and to not slip into offending people by excoriating their paradigms, but to work out how we can create the reality of the power actually being shared. How we can actually get real people in the room next time, how we can connect with our own real person-ness, start from the essentiality of cocreation, and how our system is not only incomplete, it’s meaningless, where we see ourselves as service providers and missionaries, reaching out to our audience to serve or to improve or to rescue them.

This, much like my old head teacher who had two books for Assembly: 101 Ways to Lead in to the Lord’s Prayer, and 101 More Ways…, started off as a preamble to plugging the PSTA’s Public Service: State of Transformation conference. The plug is below. But I hope if you’ve read this far, apart from coming to the conference, you’ll look out for the courtly rituals, for the service provision, the missionary mindset, the ‘agency’ mindset in your own language and thinking.

So, yeah. Our conference will seek to Not Ignore this issue. We have some diversity, not enough, but we worked on it and will keep working on it. We have a not token service user, my good friend, Jan, who is entirely highly educated and is indeed a brilliant consultant — and has been demoted to Poor Sick Miserable Person by her stroke and our institutional structures. And we have a workstream of ‘government and civil society relations’ with some people who have really, genuinely, done something about it:

  • the Wigan Deal (with Eric Robinson, Chief Executive, Wirral, and PSTA Ambassador and Rebecca Heron, Director, Wigan)
  • The disabling state — with citizens and thinkers discussing their experiences — systems sight
  • Developing and connecting to civil society and social action — with Genevieve Laurier of The Social Innovation Partnership

And we have, as our closing speaker, Claire Dove OBE DL, recently appointed as Crown Representative for VSCE and leader of award-winning Blackburn House Group — someone who both represents a sector with at least a different institutional take, and is engaged with real frontline work.

So, yeah, book via — and come along and make your voice heard — in the breakouts and in the unconference strand.

Other stuff we have happening in the Public Service Transformation Academy:

  • The East of England Transformation Academy, run in co-operation with the LGA and East of England LGA (Cambridge, begins May — contact Paul Conneely at or 0203 771 2608.

The East of England Transformation Academy, run in co-operation with the LGA and East of England LGA (Cambridge, begins May — contact Paul Conneely at or 0203 771 2608.

Please pass all this to anyone who may be interested!