Of hard questions and easy answers
By John Craig
Late last week, I talked to the Sunday Times (paywall) about spending cuts, the Big Society and the challenge of building Radical Efficiency in public services. We talked through examples of community and voluntary sector organisations that have succeeded in building different, better, lower-cost public services. From Gatemate, a Prince’s Trust project we have worked with that meets young people at the prison gate, to Shared Lives, which matches people with spare rooms and spare time to those who need care, there were plenty of great examples to talk about.
But however talented these innovators are, I have yet to meet one who says that success came easy. Equally, their ambition was almost always to inspire other public servants, not to provide a stick to beat them with. Judging by the Sunday Times’ double-page picture of a public servant with his feet up, that was’t quite how they felt. For them, we can meet the fiscal challenge simply by attacking the supposed laziness and stupidity of local authorities. I don’t agree. We work with fantastic innovators in every sector and service and in organisations large and small, including local authorities.
One of my lines in the article is that local authorities have for too long looked inwards for solutions, rather than outwards to their communities and to other organisations and experts. I stand by that, and I think many local authority leaders would agree with me. It’s something that our Festivals of Ideas help to address – a process authorities love. But to challenge local authorities is not to condemn them or write them off. Greater scrutiny will highlight the odd incompetent and raise legitimate questions about remuneration. But let’s not pretend this crisis is a problem of bad public servants – it’s a problem for even very good public servants, of whom there are many. Without their professionalism, bravery and willingness to go the extra-mile, public services really would be broke.