Finding a new relevance for public services

The challenge facing public services is one of relevance but exploring new ways of engaging with citizens and hard wiring a new approach into the DNA of public sector organisations can drive innovation says John Barradell
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Opening up and bringing the public in must be hard wired into public sector organisations to make services relevant.

"If we keep doing what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always got" goes the saying. But the challenge now facing public services is one of relevance.

If we're to seize the agenda and take a lead in radically redefining the future of public services, we'll need to let go of the idea of accepting the status quo and doing the same things with less money.

Public services face a stern test over the next few years but the process of bringing them closer to people is an interesting concept in the 'big society'. It's about redefining how the public sector interacts with communities to provide innovative services and improve lives – while at the same time making savings.

We know the financial settlement is tough and likely to remain so for the next four years. We know that the population is growing and people are living longer, placing greater pressure on services and resources. And we know that public perceptions of councils are not always entirely fair.

While local government has been adapting and innovating for years, innovation no longer mean pilots or short-term funding arrangements or career development for promising twentysomethings.

It means pushing the ambition and appetite to change our services throughout the public sector, making sure that it is hard wired into the DNA of every organisation; opening up and bringing the public in.

There are three interrelated parts in this new agenda: a new organisational attitude within public services, openness to citizens, and promotion of innovation. The challenge is linking and balancing the needs of all three.

Councils and other public services providers have to relinquish some control to the community in return for their support and advice in delivering services.

We cannot do that without involving them more in the design and delivery of services, and it's our responsibility to make that interaction as easy as possible, to also involve harder to reach citizens.

We need to devolve responsibility to frontline staff so they can take decisions on the spot where customer service is at its most potent. Staff also need to know that it's normal to feed back up the line, and even challenge, their senior managers on behalf of residents.

By doing this we end up developing a much richer dialogue between services and citizens in order to innovate.

We also have to find and support those inside and outside public service with the drive and ideas to do things differently.

Last year Brighton & Hove took these first steps through a programme called 'creating a council the city deserves', designed to reinvigorate local public services through collaboration and innovation.

We created a 'networked council' in which evidence-based commissioning plays a vital role, forcing focus onto people and place, rather than individual services and internal processes, which can become an obsession in more traditional approaches.

By taking an integrated community view we can also work towards a common set of objectives, as defined by our residents – not just tweaks here and there on a pre-existing list of services that never changes – deciding together what our priorities and activities should be.

In Brighton & Hove, a pivotal new role for the council is as the convenor and curator of organisations and data, using that evidence in service design, and joining with the public, community and third and private sector organisations in delivering the city's needs and aspirations.

A 'city camp' in March will draw all these parties together to talk about the big issues facing us and how we can address them. The council will also release place data so we can understand the what, how and why of these issues in a collective effort to propose solutions.

We may not come up with all the answers but it will be the beginning of a conversation.

In putting citizens at the heart of service design and delivery, giving public services access to ideas and having organisations ready to deliver them, we can create councils that communities truly deserve.

John Barradell is chief executive of Brighton & Hove council

John will be speaking in the 'what should we expect from the state?' session at the Guardian Public Services Summit which takes place today and tomorrow

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