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A million little moments: why public service reform has never been more needed

A badge is overlaid on the Catch22 green gradient background with the text "Catch22 Election Watch" and a cross inside a box.

In the run up to the general election taking place on the 4th July, Catch22 will publish its “election series” of blogs. In this week’s blog, our colleague at Capacity, Chris Catterall (Chief Executive), considers what the new government needs to do to transform public services in the UK for the better.

Whoever takes the key to Number 10 after 4th July, among the many issues demanding urgent attention and resources, one stands out: the need to revitalise and improve the UK’s public services.

At Capacity, we work at the intersection of designing and doing in public services. We believe that the next five years can be transformative for public services in the UK. But that hope has to be based on an ambitious, far-reaching plan to transform for a system that’s mechanistic – valuing uniformity, bureaucracy, and compliance.

What would we like to see a new government tackle first? Here’s three ideas.

1. Local and community-led public services

Everyday, more people, more communities, and more organisations are seeing the potential for something better in public services – a new way to make a difference to people’s lives. But local people and organisations have to be at the heart of public sector reform.

Local public service leaders need the flexibility and permission to design services for their cities and regions. Without it, we lose the opportunity to unlock community-led resources and energy. Local people have to define local outcomes. This is double devolution in action.

2. Legislation that works

Public services are organised for a world that’s disappearing. Outdated systems and legislation are holding back innovation and new ways of working. To modernise public services, a new government has to use its legislative powers and get support to people who need it quicker.

Something close to our hearts is children’s residential care. Children in crisis are suffering from a broken system: monetised by profit-motivated operators and experiencing a slow moving, fractured, bureaucratic care system. Juno, our not-for-profit company, is improving experiences for children and young people in residential care. And practical changes to legislation can help us do what’s good for children in care and their families.

Legislation that limits profiteering in the sector should be high on the list of priorities for a new government, along with more funding to recruit, train, and support a new generation of caring adults to grow and strengthen the social care workforce.

There are other examples. It’s encouraging to see how benefits are administered to ensure people are getting into work through a new model of employment support (Jobs Plus) being delivered locally by Transform Lives. It means people with unmet life needs on benefits aren’t penalised. The new government needs a wave of legislative changes like this to help local organisations support local people.

3. Innovation isn’t a luxury

One thing we do know for sure… there’s no huge pot of money for a new government to pump into public services. That’s why it’s essential that a new administration gives local people and public service leaders the freedom to unlock the skills, expertise and resources and do things differently.

We believe creativity and innovation isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity for shaping the future of public services. Doing nothing is a bigger risk than trying new ways of working.

In the Liverpool City Region, we are starting to do things differently. Like-minded leaders and doers are rethinking public services, and a culture of experimentation is growing.

But it’s vital to recognise that the first time we try something new, it’s not immediately better than the old solution – ‘the first car is always worse than a horse.’ It’s only through iteration, change and a culture of trying new things that we get somewhere better. Any mission-orientated government has to recognise and enable that.

Final thoughts

The need for reform in public services has never been stronger or more urgent. The new government should open the aperture to the possibilities of new public services, designed for local people and communities.

At Capacity, we sit on the fence of optimism and realism. No one is saying it’ll be easy. This isn’t 1997. The economy is in a very different place and there will be resistance to new ideas and approaches that challenge the status quo.

The last few years have proved the death of public services doesn’t come with one loud bang but a million little moments. Now is the chance to put public services into the spotlight and make them, once again, beating heart of our cities and communities.

– Chris Catterall, Chief Executive of Capacity