Thursday 19 May 2011

Public Services What you believe is what you get

The Welfare State is being atomised into a virtual free market

This BLOG has just been published in "IMPROVEMENT" the magazine of ASPECT

The original structure of the welfare state is breaking up. The public is faced with a confusing list of school designations and once straightforward medical provision is complex.  The Welfare State is being atomised into a virtual free market of providers. Many within the system are perplexed. No wonder the general public is bewildered.
In these circumstances, doctors, teachers, welfare workers and all are being tempted to operate as individuals and organisations in competition.  Many are making businesses out of services and there is a real risk of losing a sense of communal purpose as thousands are forced out of salaried posts to seek financial support, or success elsewhere.  When established, known and respected providers of services disappear we are in danger of proving there is no such thing as society.

Replacing known knowns with known unknowns!
This is not an argument to go back to good old days or that Public Service is good and Private Industry bad.  It is about the danger of replacing “known knowns” with “Known unknowns”!  More seriously, it is a warning about apparent disarray and a hopeful suggestion.
Faced with these circumstances -  atomised public services - we have to find a new coherence to make sense of what was once a fairly straightforward Welfare State. Whilst many argue for a slower pace of change, and I do, most will accept that the bulk of the old structures have gone and many will accept they were no longer fit for purpose anyway.  But we also know that market forces are difficult to order and systematise.  So, I think it is reasonable to argue that any new coherence cannot be structural. So where can coherence be found?

The key to coherence will be in what we believe
I think a new coherence might well be found in the shared values and ethics of those who provide the services. If the professionals, the providers, the workers can display a unity of purpose, there may be more clarity for the public they meet.  (should that be client, or customer? See how the language changes). If those working in the new service structures can agree the WHY? the WHAT? and the HOW? will maybe make more sense.  So, the key to coherence might well be in what we believe…
I would go further, I see a lot of real confusion around belief, vision and purpose.  It is as though we have lost a sense of common purpose because the known structures are going and they stood for stuff.  I do not believe that workers change their beliefs because they move from a public service post to one in a private enterprise but I have witnessed many who have been forced to make such a move, who have gone silent about their original motivations for being a public servant.
Some even feel these beliefs are incompatible with a company structure and purpose.  Even further?  Yes! Some who have crossed the public servant – company worker Rubicon have been all too quick to assume an imagined new purpose and interpreted this is as a freedom from public responsibility.  They have gorged on the profit motive.  It is just stupid to believe that those in a commercial set up are incapable of caring and philanthropy, or those in state services are, by their nature, inefficient and lazy.  We must not use exceptions as rules but there is vigorous condemnation of the fat cat, bonus awarding, banker who is almost universally derided as a selfish, egotist.  Maybe this review of moral purpose I suggest is not confined to the public services…Whatever, your view of these last thoughts I hope you will accept there is a need to rethink and reaffirm shared values.  So, how do we do this?

What are your fundamental beliefs, your go to the wall values? 
This is about refreshing moral purpose. First, we would do well to refresh, or develop, our personal philosophies.  This will mean making time to take stock. What are your fundamental beliefs, your go to the wall values?  Then it will be about talking in families, organisations, communities and even globally via the internet, for any agreed beliefs or shared “common goods”.  Some will revisit their professional ethics where care and support for individuals in communities involves building their capacity for self help and sustainability. Others may recall the morals of stories from their education, faith, politics, family and life experience.  All should review the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and Rights of the Child, arguably the best non-sectarian set of ethics and it is enshrined in law.

It will take time to remember, discuss and reform these philosophies.  Even then the hardest part will still be ahead.  Translating these strengthened beliefs into new, or different, daily professional behaviours will be tough.  Nevertheless, if enough of us invest the time there will be an inevitable, simple and hopeful dividend in this search for a shared moral purpose.

The common goods are not owned by anyone – they are owned by everyone.
Initially, it will mean challenge, support, heartache and joy when we find common threads and ideas.  These shared beliefs, ideas, ethics and philosophies cannot by definition be of one code, religion or politics, although some will argue they have the perfect set in their sacred, or commonplace book.  The source of the beliefs is actually unimportant – the power of these “common goods” is that they are not owned by anyone – they are owned by everyone.
Having said that I dare to hypothesise about a central truth.  I think this search for what most of us believe will lead us to understand and remember that it is our interdependence that sustains us – not our independence.  The great religions, beliefs and political movements all extol some notion of interconnectedness, togetherness, equality, regard.  The great stories, mores and maxims all support the view that personal success in political, business, or public life, does not have to be at the expense of others. All value care, compassion and due regard of others.
 If I am right and this “common good” is seen to be a truth and worth upholding, professionals working the system will be motivated to realign their personal, public, business and commercial lives accordingly.  They will be more likely to act in this way and be cooperative for the mutual benefit.  Then, no matter what the structures, their services are likely to be more focused on the good of all, not just the few.  Moreover, the competitive implications of independence, “for me and for our benefit alone”  might be curbed.  Ways of working will be challenged, or supported and the silent minority, or majority will begin to speak up and stand up for what they know others believe.

A global perspective
Ironically, this is exactly what is happening in the emerging democracies in North Africa and the Middle East and how small the focus of this piece in comparison!  But an emerging coherent philosophy in English public and private services may well have a powerful effect on their structural arrangements.  There is already a perceptible move towards less egocentric structures for businesses, where, traditionally enterprises have existed, legally if not morally, for the benefit of a few directors. New enterprises and businesses are being established as not for profit charities, cooperatives or mutuals and they are designed and set up for the benefit and support of wider groups: stakeholders, members or the wider community.  There is huge potential for change – if individuals speak up about what they believe.

So what do I do?
The start has be a growing understanding that there is real potential for a new coherence here and that it will coming from a reinvigorated, shared and open moral purpose.  What you believe is what you get, will lead to, what we believe is what we provide.  So, what you do is simple.  You think hard about what you believe – the WHY? you do things – your moral purpose.  You then talk to others and try to find common ground.  Most importantly, you let these shared beliefs influence the way you work, behave and relate to people around you.  Then, no matter what the structures, what the surface changes are, we will maintain, establish and sustain a coherent and caring approach to what we do.