Responsible Reform: Are Public Services Open for All?

Dan Silver examines a new report, based on north west data, which suggests that the ‘Big Society’ is going askew, especially with regard to charities and voluntary groups

With news in the Guardian of government plans for police privatisation, the controversial Health and Social Care reforms and the flagship Work Programme being an area of real concern, it is time to ask whether the radical public service reform agenda of the coalition government is providing the answers that we need to overcome the challenges that are facing the welfare state in the twenty-first century.

In launching Responsible Reform: Open Public Services for All, a report written byVoluntary Sector North West (VSNW) and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies(CLES), Warren Escadale, policy and research manager at VSNW, said:

While the Big State has failed to create resilient communities, the evidence shows that the Small State is destroying what remains.

This is surely a concern for all of us.

The research, which involved discussions with over 240 voluntary and community sector organisations across the North West of England, showed that there has been a stripping away of specialist services, governance mechanisms and knowledge, leaving demonstrable growth in inequality as opposed to equality of opportunity.

Furthermore, the austerity is having a terrifying impact upon organisations that are supposed to be leading the reforms under the banner of Big Society. A document leaked to the Guardian reveals that the most deprived 25% of the country will have been most severely hit by the end of this financial year, accounting for more than two-thirds of the spending cuts and with a disproportionate impact in the north.  What is emerging from this is private sector monopolies delivering public service contracts, as seen through thePrime Contractor model of the Work Programme.

Through this model, which the Government seems to be determined to extend into all areas of the welfare state, accountability rests not with the community, but rather with shareholders, with the only way for citizens to hold their public services to account through consumer-based choice. This will most likely favour the more privileged members of our society. Evidence is mounting to suggest that in its current guise, public service reform will not be open for all.

The Government published the Open Public Services White Paper in the summer and should respond to consultations in the spring (although this response cannot be assured, as seen with an unanswered consultation process last year about support for the voluntary and community sector). The Open Public Services White Paper sets out a programme of radical reform to the welfare state and provides a framework for the transformation of the post-war welfare settlement. The north west research suggests that this will be neither effective nor efficient, and will widen inequalities in our society.

In the age of austerity and with an aging population exerting more pressure on our public resources, there is a pressing need for a debate about the future of the welfare state, and an essential role for new and robust ideas. The Social Action & Research Foundation (SARF) envision a different society than the one we are currently offered that privileges the market above all else. We want one in which the economy is made to work for society. In order to achieve this, our shared public services must be co-produced alongside communities contributing their essential knowledge to create an effective and accountable welfare state, which promotes active equality at a local level, and in which the voice of those experiencing poverty is truly valued.

First published in on the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/the-northerner/2012/mar/05/socialwork-research-salford-manchester-riots-bigsociety

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