It never rains but it pours

The first day of the Guardian public services summit kicked off with a speech from the deputy prime minister but he failed to brighten the mood as delegates wondered how to deal with a miserable situation for the public sector

We gathered in the main conference room for day one of the Guardian's public services summit as the upbeat musical interlude ran out about the approaching summer.

But the heavy rain outside reflected more aptly the sombre mood among delegates facing a situation which one Manchester councillor described as one of "unmitigated misery".

Opening proceedings, the Guardian's public services editor, David Brindle, said he hoped the conference would show that things weren't quite that bad.

Brindle introduced the main themes of the conference and said delegates would hear about, discuss and hopefully find solutions to the question of how public services could continue to lead and innovate while giving greater inclusion to users and consumers of services, before introducing this year's keynote speaker, Nick Clegg.

The last time the now deputy prime minister spoke at the summit was in 2008. Suffice to say, things are a little different now. Getting to straight to the point and through a slickly delivered speech, he emphasised the need to reform and strengthen public services, while maintaining what he called the public service ethos.

Citing the economist and social reformer William Beveridge, Clegg said the key to government involvement in public services was simple: it should supervise, not run.

The audience response was polite if not friendly, but the veil was dropped by the Q&A session.

When one delegate pointed out that innovation in service provision would inevitably lead to some failures, and asked whether the government would be prepared to help protect services from the inevitable media backlash, Clegg veered between suggesting that management responsible for the failure should be sacked – via a metaphor of public leaders having their feet held over fires – to a suggestion that managers who didn't like accountability were in the wrong job. A strange attitude from the government which axed the Audit Commission.

One delegate said of Clegg's speech: "I'd hoped for more but I guess I was just being unrealistic. Again."

From smooth politick to Rousseau

From smooth politick to firebrand, next up was David Walker, contributing editor and formerly of the said Audit Commission. On form, Walker's speech took in everything from Rousseau to German caterers and ended with an impassioned plea for public sector leaders to get their voice out there and take on public opinion.

"The language of reform is revolutionary" he warned, public leaders who think change is a long time coming are in for a shock.

Jon Sibson, leader of government and public sector practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Will Straw, associate director of strategy at IPPR, then took to the stage to discuss "building the foundations for growth".

Both agreed that the sustainability and green agenda was one place with room for economic growth, if managed correctly. However, Straw emphasised that cutting spending would not instantly equal economic growth just as cutting corporation tax would automatically encourage international investment. Companies are attracted by immigration practices and a way of life, not money, he argued.

The panel debate on personal responsibility vs public services got off to a lively start with panellists Hilary Cottam announcing she didn't like the title and that the future was one where participation and contribution were part of the fabric of everyday life.

You can't ask someone to give three hours a week to help their community but you can ask them to pick up their neighbour's shopping when they do their own, she said.

Peter Marks, of the Co-op, explained that mutuals couldn't be run by nice people with a social conscience, they needed a business brain behind them. And Frank Field talked about his efforts to get community and public services working together, calling for a new definition of "public service". However, when asked whether society was ready to "make mutuals work" – both Field and Marks agreed that right now, it probably wasn't.

A view which echoed across the conference was the feeling of lots of talk on what we should be doing, but little on how. This was fore at the organisational change session. Delegates were keen to find out how their organisations could implement skills to push forward from panellists Max Wide, from BT, Jonathan Baume, from the FDA, and Katherine Kerswell, from Kent county council. How to encourage managers to develop skills in negotiating contracts, developing networks and managing service providers comes tomorrow.

The inspiring-speaker-of-the-day award was easily won by Christian Bason, director of MindLab, the Danish government's innovation unit who encouraged public leaders to set up their own space-age style labs, live with service users and ban jargon from websites. So if you're truly innovative is everything possible? Maybe, but by 4pm, after a long day, the question would have to wait.

A hard case to hear

The final session on media, transparency and privacy, saw out the day on rockier territory. Guardian journalist Paul Lewis and campaigning journalist, Heather Brooke, harangued the public sector for not being open enough with the media and writing press releases about unimportant issues. Meanwhile Steve Wood, from the Information Commissioner's Office and Michael White, assistant editor at the Guardian, attempted to keep the peace.

We'll be back tomorrow with the round-up of day two looking at, among other things, what makes a good public leader. Perhaps there will be more sunshine then. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter: @gdnlocalgov & @harriet_minter

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