This is what the public wants from services

6 May 2014 04:24 PM

Public service providers should focus on outcomes and respect, says Collaborate's Henry Kippin, assessing new research (Plus responses from JRF's Julia Unwin and Greg Partson of Imperial College).

It is now manifesto development season and you can bet that each of the major parties will soon present an account of how public services will need to change. They will include elements of greater choice, promises of further devolution, new and ingenious schemes to improve efficiency and leverage productive capacity, plus ways to address the shortcomings of flagship policies in the spheres of health, welfare, education and criminal justice.

Yet one consequence of a debate hitherto dominated by the numbers, is that no-one has really asked the public what they think. 

This is the gap that my organisation Collaborate and Ipsos MORI seek to fill in a new report published this month. We asked citizens about their wants, needs and expectations of public services. We asked them about the principles upon which public service providers should be held to account, and whether they felt that these were being respected.

We also asked the public about the issues they face in their daily lives – such as housing, jobs and living standards – and the responsibility of government and others in the economy to act for them.

The results pose a stark challenge to government and providers across the spectrum. So what did we find?

Firstly, the survey shows that citizens are strongly attached to the idea of collective social goods. One in three surveyed identified public services as ‘a service that is important to the whole community’, and ‘available for everyone to use'.

Secondly, the survey shows that the public hold government responsible for supporting them at key stages in their lives. Around 75 per cent of respondents felt that government has some responsibility to keep living standards manageable, help secure them a decent place to live and provide support with jobs and careers. Those at the bottom end of the socio economic spectrum feel this most strongly. Yet these are areas in which government is only one actor in a complex market. Collaboration across 
the sectors will be increasingly vital, with government playing a convening role that goes beyond the delivery of traditional public services.

As cuts, conditionality and targeted spending change the shape of the core service, we must ask fundamental questions about how we work differently to support livelihoods and build our collective social capacity to manage future demand.

Desire to be treated well

Third, survey data suggests that the public want to be treated well: with dignity, respect, competence and understanding. When asked ‘what do you think are the most important for organisations delivering public services to focus on’, citizens cited ‘understanding people’s needs' ‘treating the public with dignity and respect’, and ‘delivering the outcomes that matter’, in that order.

 A huge majority (79 per cent) felt that treating the public with respect is as important as the outcome being delivered.
Yet only 24 per cent felt that providers ‘always’ or ‘often’ understand their needs. Against markers of engagement and co-production, providers fall short, with only 16 per cent feeling they get a personalised service or have their preferences (and not only their needs) understood.

Yet only 24 per cent felt that providers ‘always’ or ‘often’ understand their needs. Against markers of engagement and co-production, providers fall short, with only 16 per cent feeling they get a personalised service or have their preferences (and not only their needs) understood.

Fourth, we might surmise that the collaborative citizen is alive and well, but policy-makers and public service providers struggle to engage him or her. Our survey shows that over 30 percent of citizens would be willing to spend time with public service providers to improve the service they deliver: a significant number when set against the whole population.
However, only 14 per cent of respondents currently felt involved in shaping public services with providers, which leaves significant room for improvement. Across the board, public services need to get better at engaging, enrolling and inspiring the public.

The public have spoken, but what happens next? If we want public services of the future to be designed and delivered in partnership with citizens, then we clearly have a long journey ahead to make that happen.
 More money will not solve the problem, even if we could afford it and the Local Government Association’s prediction of a £14.4bn expenditure gap for local government by 2020 strongly suggests that we can’t.

What should policy-makers focus on?

So what should the policy-makers compiling those manifestos be focusing on? Improving the role and voice of citizens in public service design must be the starting point.

We need more integrated local commissioning designed with communities; clearer user-feedback mechanisms in public contracts; financial accountability linked to broader social and community value; and a new politics of welfare that makes the case for long-term social investment over short-term, conditionality-based savings. Much of this should be done at a local level because trust in government is higher, the distance between communities and government is smaller and the limits of a top-down delivery approach are clear.

It is not enough for future players in public service markets, such as the voluntary sector and private businesses, to prove delivery competence, financial integrity and appetite for risk. Those who have put private profit or producer interest over public purpose must change. The public sector contracts and relationships that have enabled them to do
this are clearly no longer fit for purpose. Getting this right for citizens should be at the top of the list for whom ever forms the next government.

In summary

Click here to read the full report.

Read the responses from John Myatt, Julia Unwin and Greg Parston here.