Whitehall civil servants don’t yet feel they have all the necessary skills to deliver the Government’s agenda for more competition and private sector involvement in public services, according to the Institute for Government.
A new report, based on the views of those working to deliver on the Coalition’s pledge to open up public services to greater competition, says civil servants are excited about some of the opportunities that reforms bring, but they are ‘struggling to adapt’ to their new roles in delivering the programme and may need more time to develop their commissioning skills.
Commissioning for Success: how to avoid the pitfalls of open public services found ‘commercial skills in Whitehall were particularly scarce’. In summary, the report says:
- There are skills shortages in Whitehall– and too few Whitehall departments understand the skills shortages they have or have clear plans to address them.
- Those writing government contracts often concentrate too much on securing a good price upfront rather than over the life of the contract - and do too little to build the diverse market of suppliers needed to deliver the best results over the long term.
- Service users do not always have sufficient information to make informed choices over which service providers they should use
- ‘Failure regimes’ do not always do enough to ensure that poorly performing providers can exit the market easily, without unacceptably disrupting service levels
- Services are too often commissioned in government silos, meaning providers are not sufficiently encouraged to provide services that make sense to the customer.
Mixed views on how quickly problems would be addressed
The findings are the result of workshops with those involved in public service reform across more than a dozen service areas – including civil servants, regulators, private and voluntary sector providers, and academic experts.
These groups said that work was underway to address some of the problems identified and some departments with more experience of using market mechanisms felt better prepared for the Coalition reforms than others. However, too many in Whitehall felt unprepared for their new roles as influencers of system improvements, rather than direct service managers. Some involved in implementing reforms were relatively new in post and had limited experience in managing public services through competition and contracts.
Making public service reform achievable and more accountable – the Institute’s recommendations
‘Commissioning for Success: how to avoid the pitfalls of open public services’ recommends that government departments expanding the use of market-mechanisms should provide parliament and the public with an account of who is responsible for which problems; for example, is it the regulator’s job to spot a financially failing provider or the department?
Accountability maps would help public understand who is responsible and would strengthen and clarify accountability of ministers, civil servants, regulators and providers in a future where services will be more devolved from Whitehall.
The report also shares a number of ideas that research participants thought would help address the problems identified, such as more thorough testing of what should happen when a public service provider fails financially; the creation of navigation platforms to help citizens quickly access the most appropriate service; and ‘kite-marking’ of trusted providers of information on the quality of public services.
History suggests mistakes will be made and rapid learning will be essential
The Institute for Government has also published today, ‘Choice and competition in public services: Learning from history’, which looks at past reforms aimed at extending competition in employment services, health, social care and local government in order to generate lessons for current reformers. The report highlights eleven points for ministers and officials seeking to introduce market mechanisms in public services to take note of. These include:
- It takes time for changes to bed in. Major reforms have taken at least 8 years in the past, new providers from private and voluntary sectors also need time to become adapt to their new frontline roles.
- A narrative helps. It is easier to embed changes successfully when there is a convincing story and ongoing emphasis on the end results reforms will bring
- Ministerial commitment is crucial, with the success or failure of past reforms depending on the sustained commitment of the ministers leading reforms
- Effective choice and competition requires new public sector skills and mindsets. Success has often depended on how quickly those involved in reforms have adapted their institutional structures, processes and skills to support new approaches.
Market-mechanisms central to government reform agenda
Choice, competition and the market-mechanisms they require lie at the heart of the Coalition Government’s public service reforms. As David Cameron put it, “From now on, diversity is the default in our public services... instead of having to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition... as we are now doing with schools and in the NHS... the state will have to justify why it makes sense to run a monopoly.”
Tom Gash, Institute for Government Programme Director and co-author of the reports, said:
“At the next election, the Coalition will want to be able to show that public service reforms – in schools, hospitals and other core public services – are delivering results. Those involved in delivering these reforms are working hard but many in Whitehall are not yet confident they can ensure reforms improve rather than undermine service standards. Unless government addresses some of these problems quickly, there is a risk that some of the mistakes of the past will be repeated.”