In July 2011 the Coalition Government published its Open Public Services White Paper, in which the Cabinet Office sets out its policy framework for how it wants public services to be owned, delivered and funded in the future, and the roles of the individual citizen and the state in this.
The White Paper sets out an overview of their programme for public services over the next few years. Some of the measures outlined are already underway (Free Schools, Academies Act 2010), some are being taken forward in legislation currently being debated in Parliament (the Health and Social Care Bill and the Localism Bill), and some will be subject to further development and consultation.
Most of the approach to public services outlined here is a continuation of policies of the previous Labour administrations. Examples of these include: the personalisation agenda (individual service users purchasing services directly); large-scale commissioning by public bodies; new ways to bring in private finance (such as PFI); new autonomous and semi-autonomous public bodies (like Academies, NHS Trusts and Arms Length Management Organisations). The paper states that whilst the approach is not new, its systematic application to every area of public service is a qualitative change.
This White Paper was originally expected to be published at the start of the year, following its announcement in the Spending Review in Autumn 2010. The cause of the delay is not known, but many have speculated that it was delayed because of the controversy surrounding the NHS reforms, and in anticipation of similar controversy over proposals around public services as a whole. Debate around both the NHS and wider public service reforms have focussed on the same issues: the desirability of increased competition, and its impact on cost, inequality and quality of services.
Underpinning theory and principles of Open Public Services
Open Public Services is based on the theory that market competition between providers improves the quality of services experienced by service users, and will make them more effective, thereby improving social outcomes, and reducing costs. It identifies an important new role for government as that of having responsibility for ensuring free competition.
The policy framework is based on 5 principles
• Choice of providers for service users
• Diversification of providers - ‘any qualified provider'
• Fair access to public services
• Accountability to users and taxpayers.
Commissioned services, Individual services and Neighbourhood services
The paper divides up public services into three main types of service, and outlines its approach and plans for each of these areas.
In Open Public Services, the Coalition proposes that the default position for public services organised by government or other public bodies should be that they are contracted out. It lists a few exceptions to this: the military, core policing, intelligence and the judiciary. Organising elections is not listed as one of the exceptions, and neither are fire and rescue services. Immigration is highlighted as an area for a commissioning approach to be taken, as are local services in ‘customer contact', planning, property and facilities management, back-office transactional services (accounts, contract management), family support services, services for looked after children (children in care), trading standards, environmental services and housing management.
Commissioned Services are defined as services which the Coalition believes it is not possible or appropriate to pass to individual service users to organise (individual services), nor for community organisations to take over (neighbourhood services).
In terms of who would run contracted-out services, these are identified as ‘any qualified provider'. In Open Public Services, the Government says that public service commissioners could be required to take steps to have at least 3 providers delivering any service, in a process open to ‘any qualified provider', linking their contracts to payment by results, and being open to challenge by providers on decisions (Open Commissioning). There is no announcement of legislation to bring this proposal into force, but there is an announcement that the Government will consult further on this.
The Paper proposes extending the ‘payment on results' approach taken in the Welfare to Work services to services for the rehabilitation of offenders, public health, drug and alcohol recovery, children's centres, and vulnerable people. It also announces that 10 local authorities will test out payment by results in services paid for by Supporting People budgets, and explore the possibility of payment by results in a number of others areas including court and tribunal administration, debt enforcement, immigration and visa administration.
It proposes a different relationship between the commissioner and the provider, with providers of services encouraged to go to public funders with ideas, and commissioners issuing less specification for what services should look like.
The Coalition indicates (subject to further consultation) an intention to extend the model of autonomous providers within the public sector, and to make semi- autonomous organisations fully autonomous (for example Arms Length Management Organisations becoming Housing Associations).
The paper highlights an intention to encourage more use of digital technology in the provision of public services - both in frontline care (tele-health and tele- care) and in back-room functions.
Individual services are defined as personal services provided to individuals. They include education, skills training, adult social care, childcare/children's services, housing support, and individual healthcare.
The focus of proposals around individual services is on funding being tied to individual service users and their choices in two ways;
(1) They propose extending personal budgets, with service users ‘purchasing' the services of their choice - through cash (direct payments) or vouchers. Direct payments are already well established in social care services, and the White Paper says that all councils will need to extend personal budgets to all areas of adult social care by 2013, and to the Supporting People budget, which pays for housing support for vulnerable people. It also proposes to explore, and pilot, an integrated personal budget approach across several services, specifically looking at health and social care budgets for sufferers of chronic health conditions, and of health, education and social care budgets for families of children with special needs.
(2) As well as increasing service user ‘purchasing power', the Coalition also wants to give funding to public service providers based on the number of service users using a service. This would mean, for example, extending the system of tariffs already started in parts of the NHS, with providers paid for carrying out each treatment, looking specifically at mental health services and community health services, from 2012/13, and proposing a similar funding mechanism for schools, further education and skills.
The third group of services defined are neighbourhood services, which are provided locally and used on a collective basis - such as maintenance of public space, parking, museums, sports, leisure and recreational facilities, libraries and community safety.
The focus of proposals around these services is again for contracting out and diversification of service provision, and devolution of responsibility for decision-making, organisation and purchasing services to neighbourhood level wherever possible.
In terms of devolution, the White Paper talks about strengthening and reinvigorating neighbourhood councils (parish, town and community councils) and of further consultation on the scope of neighbourhood councils to take over control of services, how to increase their capacity, how to make it easier to set them up, and how to enable them to raise revenue. Alongside this the Government is also proposing devolved budgets, announcing two Neighbourhood Community Budget pilots, following on from the Community Budget pilots (formerly known as Total Place).
In terms of delivery of neighbourhood services, proposals are put forward for an expansion of community ownership, through more voluntary and community groups owning, running and managing services and assets as social enterprises, trusts or co-operatives. Open Public Services says that the Government will encourage local authorities to transfer assets to communities, and introduce new ‘community rights' to bid to run neighbourhood services, buy buildings and land and have more of a say in local development (in the Localism Bill).