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Collaboration for radical change in public services and international development

Tamsin Fulton, 14 June 2015

Public World recently co-hosted with the Overseas Development Institute and Collaborate a roundtable that explored what international development and British public service policy and practice could learn from each other.

As a social enterprise that grew out of the work of its founders in international development and is now being transformed by the British public service specialists who have joined the Public World team, we knew the discussion would explore a rich seam.

Chaired by our own Brendan Martin, participation in the event was diverse, with a range of organisations including the World Bank, the Cabinet Office, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and the Leadership Centre at the Local Government Association.

The group agreed the starting point to reinventing public services are approaches that are locally-led, enable people to solve problems for themselves, adopt ‘learning by doing’ and embrace the uncertainty inherent in complex change processes.

Easy to say, harder to do, and fraught with danger when some politicians and public agencies use such terms as ‘co-production’ as a rationale for abandoning state responsibility rather than reinventing it.

The growth of Service Design as a practice has spread simple and effective methodologies to achieve change across the UK public sector and elsewhere. It has led to a diligent focus on service users and tools such as ethnographic research to really understand services from the perspective of users.

We have also seen the rise of Citizens’ Forums and Lay Partners, particularly in health and social care, that go beyond “getting the voice of the user into the room” and directly involve citizens in discussion about and design of new public services. This is beginning to shift public service models towards radical change.

The next step, and one in which we can draw on the experience of our colleagues in overseas development, is to support public servants to reconsider their own role, to shift their mental models from seeing themselves as “providers” responding to demand from citizens and the political environment.

Steve Commins, a Public World director who took part in the roundtable and is an author of the most recent World Bank World Development Report Mind, Society and Behavior, raised the issue of professional bias in overseas development. He argued that well-meaning professionals can fail to help, or even inadvertently harm, the very people they seek to assist if they fail to take into account that their choices are subtly and unconsciously influenced by their social environment, the mental models they have of the poor, and the limits of their cognitive bandwidth.

Reimagining public services that are locally-led and that learn through doing to support communities to solve problems for themselves will require professionals to fully engage with citizens on a level and in a way not seen before.

They also demand a new approach to leadership, recognising that while people at the top of hierarchical public bodies certainly have particular responsibilities, there are people at all levels in all kinds of organisations and citizen spaces who can champion the vision and build capacity at a community level to collectively undertake radical change.

Public sector resources that grow the capacity of these leaders will facilitate communities to explore what works in the local context, and to test, learn, improve, grow and embed new services that work for the whole community — building on the passion for experimentation inherent in service design.

This kind of leadership could create a movement that roots a new kind of public service in new kinds of relationships — between users and providers, between state and non-state agencies, and across professional and hierarchical boundaries within communities.

Participants at the roundtable made a renewed commitment to exploring more adaptive, creative and participatory approaches to both development and public service practice.  While we have only scratched the surface of this important topic, we hope it will lead to deeper and wider collaboration in the future.

  • Tamsin Fulton is a director of Public World and a specialist in service co-design
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