Week three of the UK party conference tour and this week we're in Manchester with the Conservatives…
Defining the Big Society brings to mind the former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's oft-used definition of the indescribable: 'I'll know it, when I see it'.
Ok, so we didn’t actually get any closer in our fringe to getting a definition of precisely what the Big Society is, but broadly what we’re talking about is the Government’s localism agenda and the inclusion of non-public sector organisations in public service provision.
However you define it (‘today’s buzzword’ to describe things already happening, according to Manchester councillor Sue Murphy, who pointed to a long history of a volunteer ethic and strong council-community relations in her city), one of the things that matters when it comes to the Big Society is how to evaluate the use of public or private funds in the delivery of public services.
Does a certain way of service provision deliver value for money? Could it be done more efficiently another way?
For Stephen Hammond, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Department of Communities and Local Government supremo Eric Pickles, the Government’s way is to decentralise power like never before, in that they’re actually doing it. Every government comes to power promising decentralisation, said Hammond, but the Coalition was the first to produce results.
Devolving power, the need to cut spending, and the consequent need to innovate in public service provision, argued Hammond, would lead to more shared services and greater 3rd sector involvement.
Briefly outlining the need for a localist agenda – centralisation alienates people from their own communities – Hammond said that accountability and governance was a key part of making sure the localism agenda worked. If local councils knew they were being checked up on by their local voters, they would be far more responsive to their needs, rather than Westminster’s.
Transparency is the key here, asserted Hammond. ‘Information is power’ was never more true, and power could be transferred from government to people by placing central and local government data in the hands of ‘armchair auditors’ (said pointedly addressed in the direction of ACCA’s Gillian Fawcett. Wouldn’t have anything to do with this, would it?)
Is this enough though? Is ‘information is power’ a robust enough protection for value for money in public service provision? Not everyone in the room was so sure.
Fawcett pointed out that UCL research into the use of Freedom of Information requests showed that there was a distinct lack of interest in going through government financial statements amongst the public. ‘Information does not tell you everything’, said Murphy (probably grumpy about spending stories like this one) and raw data misses out on context.
Fawcett went on. The public sector was changing the way it provided its services, she said, and the financial oversight needed to catch up. Unfortunately, it wasn’t yet clear if the fragmented system of UK public spending oversight was coherent or clear. Also missing, Fawcett continued, was any way of evaluating the impact of the Big Society and its outcomes, including who could actually carry out that oversight.
After a while, discussion turned to the Audit Commission; the manner of its demise was not entirely popular in the room, although no one disagreed openly with Hammond’s position that the Audit Commission wasn’t as effective as it should have been. ‘Rushed’ was the conclusion of more than one, while Fawcett said it was a missed opportunity to carry out a wholesale reform of public spending oversight.
This still all left questions about how to actually achieve the required oversight of new service delivery models. Murphy looked to her own experience: councils and third parties needed to agree on outcomes carefully before embarking on any project if they were to be properly to be held to account.
And Stephen Hammond? We still need proper auditing of 3rd party public sector service provision, he said. It’s a challenge that can be met.
Hmmm. Hammond’s answer brings to mind the story of an exam hall wag. Asked by his maths exam to ‘find x’ in an equation, said wag circles ‘x’ and proudly declares ‘here it is’. Our panel was asked to find potential problems with holding the Big Society to account; ‘there’s one’, said Hammond.
Yes, but what about the rest of them? And how is government going to solve them?
Updated: 5/10 18.48