A manifesto for the future of public services

Written by Mark Thompson, Strategy Director at Methods, and Senior Lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School

Mark Thompson has been announced as the Digital Leaders East of England local champion 2018. Mark is a long-standing champion of re-using stuff to make local services better and save money (for more local services).  A frequent blogger on#legogovernment, Mark also co-authored Manifesto for Better Public Services, and Digitizing Government.  He does lots of advisory/practitioner roles, and worries about digital stuff.  A lot.

Here in the UK this feels like a period of unprecedented national disarray. Brexit, the health service, the housing crisis, law and order, austerity and immigration and taxation continue to divide us. Our ageing population may consume half of government revenues by 2061 – and with UK debt at 90% of GDP, we’re the worst-performing advanced economy in the world.

I want to challenge the orthodoxy that there are only two options on the table: higher taxes; or more cuts. I believe there is a third option: reform of the system itself.

In 1941 Beveridge asked: “How would one plan social insurance now if one had a clear field… without being hampered by vested interests of any kind?”. I ask “How would one plan a modern, internet-enabled, state if one had a clear field… without being hampered by vested interests of any kind?”

You might reply ‘Nice idea, but organisationally unrealistic’, ‘financially impractical’, ‘politically naïve’: or frankly ‘How dare he compare himself to Beveridge’!

I look at modern, internet-based organisations, and ask: what if our public services became as flexible, streamlined and easy-to use as Uber – but with fairer remuneration and in public ownership?  As convenient as Amazon’s operations, and as intuitive as Google – but with 100% of the money invested into the frontline, instead of being pocketed by shareholders? And all while protecting citizens’ personal data rather than monetising and exploiting it?

In an age in which the seductiveness and efficiency of online social and economic exchange have turned Jeff Bezos into the richest human ever to walk the planet, can we harness some of those smarts – ethically, and in a way that enables us all to share in the benefits?’

The Opportunity

A modern public sector should be focused on citizen-facing roles – doctors, nurses, teachers, day-care centre workers, social services, librarians – which are pretty much the only roles that citizens actually care about.

Yet in much of the public sector we see the exact opposite happening. Far from modernising and reallocating resources to the frontline, we see a ballooning of managerial and admin roles in all areas of education, health, and the civil service.

English local government has 353 councils, each surrounded by health, social care, housing, blue light, and third sectors, each with their own infrastructure, suppliers, and institutional processes – delivering almost the same services under the same policies and legislation.

They have no reason to be different from one another in the way they operate, at all: none.

Instead, a modern internet-enabled way of organising local government would resemble ‘Heart FM’: locally-configured regional services, underpinned by standard ‘playlists’ of common processes and functions consumed over the internet for very little cost.

This could save £5.2bn every year – or the potential to free up an additional £14.7m for each of the 353 councils – at a time when local authority budgets across Britain were cut by £18bn in real terms between 2010-15.

Applying the same model to our 650 duplicated NHS Trusts, I estimate annual savings of £7bn every year: that’s the equivalent of 191,985 junior doctors. Taking our public services as a whole we could save £46bn year-on-year.

That’s over an additional 1m frontline public servants!

So how would it work?

At the heart is a new digital public infrastructure fit for the twenty-first century.  A new “digital commons” of standard, ‘Lego-brick’ processes and functions that would enable much more effective sharing, distribution and ownership of information, services and technology across the public sector.

By helping expose and remove large scale duplication of costs, processes, functions and systems across the public sector, this digital commons would redirect resources to frontline services, into the people-centred activities that matter most to citizens and which cannot – and should not – be automated.

It would also re-empower public servants themselves. Imagine you’re a charity worker who wants to set up a pop-up service in your local library. You simply go onto Gov.UK, and create your own state-of-the-art back-office organisational function there and then from this shared digital commons of standard ‘Lego brick’ components: a bit of workflow, some case handling, registration, data storage, maybe some analytics – consumed straight out of the cloud, like Netflix movies, and constituted around the citizen as a joined-up service.

‘Lego government’ would also empower democracy. As a citizen, journalist, or MP I could also log onto Gov.UK – and browse a ‘live DNA’ of the services provided by my council, or NHS Trust – and see what they cost – whether they’re composed of standard ‘Lego bricks’ or wasting precious resources – and I can suggest how to design them better. This, surely, has to be a better approach to public service design and accountability?

Delivering  ‘Lego government’

This way forward is set out in the “Manifesto for better Public Services”. In 30 years’ time, local services won’t be delivered from duplicated and expensive organisations anymore. Everyone will still have their local politicians and democratic accountability, but there will be fewer administrators, and lots and lots more locally-accountable doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers and other frontline public servants.  Other functions of less public value will have gone; they’ll be consumed and streamed like Netflix movies. It’ll be the same with parts of Whitehall departments, and with agencies.

The Manifesto programme would be as follows:

  1. Distinguish everywhere between frontline and overheads – so we can all see clearly where improvements can be made.
  2. Publish everything in a digital commons that belongs to everyone – so we can expose and remove duplication of overheads and move towards transparent and adaptable “Lego government”.
  3. Establish a Public Value Index – so we can understand and monitor what “good services” and outcomes look like from the perspective of citizens and frontline workers.
  4. Support a major shift of accountability to frontline workers, as they innovate and improve our services.
  5. Look after people and services as the changes are made – so we act with compassion to all those in roles and functions no longer required.

I recognise that making these changes won’t be easy. Our public sector is big and complex: change needs to be carefully cultivated, nurtured and scaled – and can’t be imposed from above as some kind of “grand plan”.  We need to understand that real modernisation of our public services will create winners and losers, will meet with quiet but effective resistance in many places, and must compete with the immediacy of Brexit.

We suggest starting small, led by pioneer groups of public sector bodies keen to work in the open to become more efficient and transfer value to the frontline. We can see what works, what problems arise, what value it brings, and whether it helps.



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