Purpose and Relationships: the public sector’s antidote to the Brexit malaise

The search for silver linings from Brexit is inevitable. One such may be that the utter failure of Westminster to manage the process credibly may provide further impetus to drive more decision making to regional and local levels. This should be a good thing – but the benefit may be lost unless public bodies attempt to address the dysfunctional relationships which inhibit their ability to create positive social impact.

Examples of these dysfunctional relationships include those currently held with the market; with other public bodies; with money; and with time. The effect of the market has been particularly insidious. The drive since the 1980s to rely on the market to provide more and more public services has bred a transactional culture within our public institutions. There have been many examples of private sector providers not honouring the promises made during tender processes (and, increasingly, challenging tender processes routinely where they do not succeed). The advent of payment by results has seen an increase in over-claiming or simply fraudulent reporting. As guardians of the public purse, the public sector has developed attitudes to procurement and contracting which assume their providers will do all they can to optimise their financial returns from each contract. Procurement processes are deployed which encourage pricing to be driven down to, and sometimes beyond, what is financially viable for the providers in what becomes a race to the bottom. Under the yoke of austerity, this may seem unavoidable, but it further embeds an adversarial culture – and it does not have to be this way.

The mood in this regard is already (slowly) shifting. Just this year, we have already seen the NHS Long Term Plan proposing to take health services out of the procurement regulations and the government announce an extension of social value principles in central government commissioning. We are also seeing more and more commercial businesses talking about having a purpose beyond maximising shareholder value. The time is ripe for public bodies to be very explicit themselves about their own purpose and to use this to drive all their activities and all their relationships. For example, a commissioning strategy built around delivering the organisation’s social purpose could lead firstly into a procurement process designed to identify how providers can demonstrate their own commitment to fulfilling that purpose. The hitherto neglected innovation partnership model may be one way to explore what this might mean in practice, offering as it does the room for co-design of ways of working which could evolve over the life of a partnership, but with an enduring commitment to the core purpose and the flexibility for the public body’s partner (or partners) to step aside where they are not optimally placed to further that purpose. As Mariana Mazzucato has suggested, maybe it is time HM Treasury revised the Green Book so that it accounts explicitly for public value in more than purely financial terms.

Anyone involved in health and social services knows the challenges do not sit neatly within the siloes into which the public sector is segregated. Identifying common purposes and using them as north stars in relation to particular initiatives (and meta-perspectives) is not going to be a panacea to this, but it may, if consistently applied over time, begin to break down those siloes and the innate organisational protectionism that is currently a deeply ingrained element of public sector culture. There is no reason why targets (for individuals and their organisations) cannot be measured, in part at least, against contributions to those larger purposes. Even accepting the challenges of accurate attribution of outcomes (given the variables in play), there is much to be gained from a culture change founded on putting collective purpose before organisational priorities. This could be at the heart of a re-assertion of the concept and the actuality of the civil servant.

Time is another problematic relationship for public bodies. Short electoral cycles and even shorter budgeting periods can mean that cheap and visible fixes, however temporary, predominate, regardless of how much lip service is given to the merits of preventative interventions. There is also a culture of serial new initiatives being announced rather than simply allowing practice to evolve. Often, these are enthusiastically expanded before a pilot has demonstrated their efficacy. Alternatively, like the attempts at long term strategic partnerships such as LIFT companies or Local Education Partnerships, they are undermined by subsequent policy changes which effectively cut them off at the knees before long term impact can be delivered.

Whilst the specific identity of public institutions (the Council, the NHS trust or whatever) are rarely safe from reconfiguration over time, it is reasonable to assume they will exist in some form for as long as there is a community in a locality. Again, some common purposes could agreed at a local level – possibly informed by Citizen’s Assemblies or other forms of participatory democracy – and become fixed for a generation. These could be local versions of international or supra-national targets, such as the SDGs or IPCC emissions thresholds. They might be subject to periodic review and adjustment to take into account material supervening events, such as the loss or creation of anchor employment opportunities or, increasingly likely in the future, sea level rise, harvest failures or mass migration. These might shift the means, but confirm the collectively owned ends.

Consistent with the other relationships outlined above, the public sector needs to treat money as a tool for delivering its social purpose, not a goal in its own right. It should not be squandered, but nor should it be the primary policy driver and if it is less prominent in public bodies’ relationships with delivery partners; with other public bodies; and in short term budgeting, one would imagine it would be easier to treat it as a productive servant, not the overbearing master it has generally been this last decade.

Many working in the public sector are committed individuals trying to make a difference. However, more often than not they are operating in environments where the pervasive culture is one of defensiveness and caution, trying to protect what they still have, rather than stepping up or out to lead positive social change.

I am not advocating a return to a paternalistic state doing everything for people. I envisage an enabling actor, providing the legitimacy and the means by which local citizens might use and be community assets to do things like grow local organic produce; or develop and collectively own digital platforms to make use of overcapacity in the local economy (whether material, like cars; or services, like companionship addressing social isolation); or build local infrastructure in terms of renewable energy generation, financial inclusivity and affordable homes.

The Brexit refrain was “take back control”. Leaving the EU will not of itself come close to achieving this. Nor will handing responsibility to local authorities without power or funding, as Whitehall has done in relation to clean air, for example. And even if money and power do transfer to regional and local levels, the impact will still be modest without the introduction of systemic changes. Identifying social purposes in the public interest, involving citizens in determining what those are and developing relationships with key partners, within and without the public sector, centred on fulfilment of those purposes, has the potential not only to address the promise of Brexit but the root causes which provoked it. 

All content on this page is correct as of July 16, 2019.