This blog is mainly about the governance and future of policing and crime services. (Police & Crime Commissioners feature quite a lot.) But there are also posts about the wider justice system. And because I am town councillor and political activist, local & national issues are covered a little, as well.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The source of innovation in the public services

Many years ago, in my first year at university, I lived in a hall of residence. I recall a debate that went on between me and a couple of cyberneticists about whether humankind would ever be able to create a robot that was superior to a human. Their view was that this would be possible. I took (and still take) the opposite view: humans will always be superior to machines.

I am not going to run through the whole argument (mostly because the detail has now left my accessible memory) but I do recall winning the argument. (My colleagues may of course have a different memory!) In my view I won because I said that human mortality would always give us that creative edge. In other words when the chips are down, the robot would know it was replicable. As people we know we are not and this gives us that fraction more grip on the present and desire to survive. Moreover, and I have only discovered this as I have got older and become a parent, love makes all the difference as well. 

Loving other people, deeply caring about others, especially one's own children, makes us want for something better... always.

But why am I writing this?

This morning, I began a small twitter debate with a blogger I have huge respect for: Russell Webster ‏(@russwebt) We have been discussing the pros and cons of Payment by Results (I have linked this to Russell's blog as it provides an excellent starter for ten). Russel said that he is pro PbR (but with questions). I asked him why. He said that it was because the "principles are right: outcome-focus, space for innovation. Would rather see reinvestment not profit as incentive + contract retention as provider incentive" and when I quizzed him further, he said an "outcome focus strips out bureaucracy. Very little innovation in public services over last 20 years (apart from pilots)".


I am going to let go the throw away line of "very little innovation in public services over last 20 years" since I think there has been much. But let's not debate that at the moment. 

Let's debate instead what I see as Russell's fundamental point which is that money or threat of contract termination are the best ways of getting innovation into the public services. I profoundly disagree. I would argue that in fact it is this neo-liberal perspective and policies that have closed down innovation and improvement in the public services.

Now, as my story above partly accepts, innovation does come from a threat to survival. This comes from our mortality... which for me includes our humanity and our love of the world and the people within it. In my view, the atomisation, and commodification of the public services has all but destroyed the true source of public service innovation: the deep desire to make this world a better place for the many not just the moneyed few.

I think what has stopped innovation from bursting out in more places in the public services is not the absence of financial incentives provided by the likes of PbR and other neo-liberal commercial models being shoe horned into the public services (by some politicians and consultancies like McKinsey and others) - but their presence, their dominance even. 

Instead, what we need now is the progressive vision, political leadership and the concomitant policies for public services to be based on that simple principle of... public service! 

We do not need PbR reward formulas that look increasingly like Credit Default Swaps composed by actuaries in darkened rooms. We do not need yet more Byzantine organisational plumbing to make the "customer/provider" model work in the NHS/Prisons/Schools etc. (The model does not fit!)  

What we need are the public services committed to public service...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the response Jon. I'd like to see "profits" reinvested with the incentives for providers being renewal of contract - which would also safeguard voluntary sector supply chains