04 March 2016

The public can provide insights on the effective running of public sector markets through their experience as users, but their experiences are largely overlooked. Following the fourth event in the series on Where Next for Public Service Markets?, Oliver Ilott reports on some potential solutions to this long-standing problem.

Putting the public back into public service markets

Public involvement can improve public service markets. Geraldine Blake, Chief Executive of Community Links, has seen this principle in action, describing a programme in Newham that co-opted users in the running of commissioned welfare services. Laura Bunt, Head of Policy Research and Communications at Citizens Advice, demonstrated the potential use of complaints data to inform the operation of HM Revenue and Customs call centres.  But at present, public service markets deprive themselves of these valuable insights. At the IfG event on public sector markets, the panellists and audience identified two necessary steps to redress this situation: first, understand the public and second, reform public service markets in a way that supports increased public involvement.

Understand the public

The Institute for Government’s work on smarter engagement found that understanding citizen perspectives was a prerequisite for successful engagement. Much of Tuesday’s discussion focused on how we understand what the public want from outsourced services.

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, stressed that for the public, the quality of the service continues to be more important than who delivers it. Geraldine Blake stressed that the quality of the user’s direct engagement with staff is often the key determinant of their confidence in a service. People want to be reassured that contracts are selected in the right way, that there is clear accountability if services fail and that services will be run with respect for their users.

When it comes to ‘co-production’ of services, people agree that the public should get involved in designing and delivering services, but not many think it should be them personally. This changes when the involvement is focused around a specific request and is framed in terms of ‘people helping people‘. Citing work by Ipsos MORI and NESTA, Bobby Duffy explained that just 5% of people say they would like active involvement in local public services (beyond being consulted), but 43% say they would participate in a one-off clean-up of their local environment and a third say that they would visit patients in local hospital for a few hours a month.

Around half of the issues for which people come to Citizens Advice relate to public services. Laura Bunt highlighted the fact that the complex delivery landscape of public services means people don't know where to go when things go wrong (as the Institute has described in our work on local delivery of public services).

Putting the public back into public service markets

Reform public service markets to involve the public

Once they understand citizens, public sector commissioners and public service providers should make use of their insights. The discussion described three potential areas of reform:

  • Reformed institutions – In Geraldine Blake’s terms, for many of these organisations the idea of becoming more responsive to the public was ‘scary’. Commissioners and providers might be technically and culturally unprepared for the task. In the Institute’s work on public engagement, we identified a need for this type of ‘institutional readiness’ before engagement could take place.
  • Better contracts and legal arrangements – One audience member described the rigid legal barriers that prevented co-operation between commissioners and providers trying to engage the public, such as those regarding data sharing. Geraldine Blake stressed that engaging people well takes time and resources, and this is not written into contracts or being done by commissioners.
  • Transparency and accountability – Dr Jo Casebourne, Programme Director at the Institute for Government, asked whether the use of a transparency clause in public sector contracting (as recommended by the Institute) would increase the accountability and effectiveness of contracted-out public services. One area where it was felt that greater openness would encourage public involvement was the decision making process for awarding contracts; Geraldine Blake was confident that the public would be shocked to discover that this process did not give greater weight to the track record of potential providers.

Next steps

The common theme to Tuesday’s discussion was that public service markets ought to see people who use services as assets, better valuing feedback from their experiences. For Lucy DeGroot, former Chief Executive of Community Service Volunteers, this required an entirely new way to commission services, one that made better use of digital platforms, was more responsive to user needs and placed a greater emphasis on accountability. Whatever approach is adopted, there was consensus that public sector markets that did more to engage their citizens would deliver more effective services.

Further information

Watch 'Putting the public back into public services' in full. This event, held at the Institute for Government, was chaired by Sarah Neville, Public Policy Editor of the Financial Times, and was organised in partnership with the Business Services Association.