Those of us who work in public services talk quite often about the relationship between citizens and state. It sits at the heart of everything we do: it is the social contract that underpins social policy and public service delivery. Now, in response to a rapidly shifting set of social, economic and political demands, we need to change it. But what does that mean?
Citizen-state relationships are complex and varied. Sometimes they are transactional, and sometimes high-touch. Sometimes they are voluntary, and sometimes enforced. Think buying a tax disc versus treating a long-term condition; applying for housing versus going to prison. Some state-funded services we experience individually (like seeing a GP), and others we experience collectively (like going to school). Some are provided by the state itself, and some are contracted out to others (charities or businesses) to deliver.
My old boss Sir Andrew Foster used to argue that public services are the “cornerstone of a civilized society”. They are, at root, things we do for each other that we couldn’t do alone. And whether your preferred social model is the U.S. or Sweden, there is consensus between most of our political class that we need certain public services not only as a form of protection, but as a way of building the human capital that will underpin our future prosperity and growth.
As a public we experience what is sometimes called ‘cognitive dissonance’ in terms of our relationship with the state. Almost 80% of those surveyed by Ipsos MORI for Collaborate in 2015 (1,000 adults UK-wide) said they expect the state to play a role supporting them if things go wrong. Around three quarters of us think the state has a role ensuring a good job, a decent place to live and to keep living standards low. But as Ipsos MORI’s Ben Page famously argued, we also want “Swedish welfare with American taxes”. Only a small percentage (14%) feel any stake in shaping the services they receive, and over one third of people say their preferences are never listened to by public service providers.
So when we talk about changing the relationship between citizens and state, we are wading into a complex set of relationships that have evolved over a long time, and upon which multiple dependencies and assumptions rest. So where do we start?
First, lets see this as a journey. William Beveridge’s visionary 1942 blueprint for the welfare state has endured, and for good reason. But even he was the first to note that, at worst, it unhelpfully positioned citizens as passive recipients of services designed and delivered by the state. By the 1980s, politicians were pushing back at this assumption. The rise of New Public Management and the emergence of quasi-markets in public services started to position the citizen as something else – a consumer. But this, too, is a very one-dimensional version of what we are.
In response, the idea of the citizen as ‘co-producer’ has slowly emerged (though with roots in Elinor Ostrom’s academic work during the 1970s). This is based on a simple premise: that value is created by a relationship – the interaction between the service and the user. To improve outcomes, both sides of this relationship need to be working well. We are still barely scratching the surface with this vision of ‘citizen as co-producer’ in public services. Yet the context we are in demands a further evolution still. As the size and scope of the state shrinks, citizens are being asked to do more for themselves – to run libraries, look after public space, care for ourselves and each other much more, and to take responsibility for many of the social outcomes that the state originally took upon itself to deliver.
Changing the citizen-state relationship is, to me, about re-dressing an imbalance in the way public services work – not about shunting more social risk on to communities. Our current system is unsustainable, as any cursory look at demographic or need-related demand will tell us. Public spending remains loaded towards acute interventions that address symptom and not cause. And as the Institute for Government has recently noted, we have failed to turn rhetoric into reality and join-up local public services in a way that fits with the lives of citizens over the needs of institutions.
A more active role for citizens is critical because meeting the future challenges we face is impossible without building a broader movement for reform that goes beyond public sector ingenuity. For instance, Greater Manchester’s health and social care reform programme is premised on a tangible shift in the relationship between citizen and state. Community resilience, prevention, social movement thinking and demand management all require a degree of behaviour change and risk sharing that needs both cross-sector engagement and a role for citizens that goes beyond being a grateful recipient of more integrated services.
It is critical that leaders in GM and beyond start to develop the building blocks for this new way of working. This is less about nudging and more about readiness. System change on a scale this profound doesn’t happen by accident, so building readiness for deep citizen engagement, real collaborative commissioning, asset-based working and co-production is vital. At Collaborate our work starts with understanding preconditions – the things that need to be in place for collaborative relationships across the sectors (and with citizens) to work. They are often not.
Changing the citizen-state relationship is, ultimately, about power. That is why real change is so hard to effect, and why even great engagement and dialogue often fails to influence the behaviour of commissioners and providers. Yet Greater Manchester has an opportunity. We are already seeing an openness to new ways of thinking about the role of citizens and communities, and the emergence of a policy and legislative framework that can support it. As the excitement of devolution becomes the reality of delivery, it is vital that we live up to this potential.
Dr Henry Kippin is Executive Director of Collaborate