Tony Bovaird 'When Tomorrow Comes - The Future of Local Public Services'

Interviewer: Lucy Vernall (Project Director, Ideas Lab)
Guest: Professor Tony Bovaird
Recorded: 19/09/2011
Broadcast: 30/09/2011

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Lucy: Today we’re with Professor Tony Bovaird who is Professor of Public Management and Policy at the University of Birmingham. Welcome Tony.

Good morning.

Lucy: And we’re going out a bit early. You normally get us on a Monday but today we’re going out on a Friday and that’s because we’re going to be talking about the third event in the Birmingham Policy Commissions which is happening very early on Monday morning, so we’re going out on a Friday because of that. Tony, you’ve been a commissioner on this Policy Commission which has been entitled ‘When Tomorrow Comes - The Future of Local Public Services’. That’s obviously a huge area. What will you aim to take in within that?

Tony: We’ve been looking at the need for a radical shake-up in the way government works at national and local level in order to make local public services more effective and also much more cost effective in this era of austerity. So we looked at a whole range of ways in which services could be changed, the people who provided those services could be changed and those services could have far better outcomes for the public, for their users, but where possible at much lower cost.

Lucy: If you’ve been listening over the past two or three weeks this is the third of our special series of three podcasts about the Birmingham Policy Commissions and this policy commission is the one that’s actually been completed, so you launched this a year ago.

Tony: That’s correct. We published the documents in May, early June, we’ve had a number of events but we’ve come to the Conservative Party Conference in order to talk about the results we came up with, the recommendations we’ve made, in a way which can get more readily to the people who come to the party conference.

Lucy: And you can actually read the full report if you like which is available on the Birmingham University website.

That’s right. There’s a summary report, there’s an executive summary and there's the full report.

Lucy: So to give us a quick flavour of what’s in the report, what are the headlines or the kind of stand-out recommendations that this year of consultation has come up with?

Tony: The report suggests that we need to change things quite radically in four different areas. One of them is the role of citizens with respect to government; citizens taking more responsibility as co-authors of their own lives, of the quality of their lives, of the kinds of services that they need and they want and that they can themselves contribute to. A second area is creating 21st century public servants who are able to work more readily with, and more effectively for, citizens and service users who can support citizens in the way they want to lead their lives and the outcomes they wish to achieve for themselves and doing so in down to earth ways which are not bureaucratic, which are slick and effective and fit into people’s lifestyles more readily than in the past. In other words, getting away from the mass production model of government that we’ve used in the past to move to a system which is customer-orientated and customer-directed. The third set of recommendations is around local government and the way that it can connect to the resources and the opportunities at local level and the way it can connect other people to what it can do so that government makes best use of its funding, makes best use of its resources, its expertise and connects itself to citizens and the third sector in more imaginative ways than in the past. And then finally the need for a new settlement between national government, local government and citizens because that is essentially broken. Over-directive centralism, localism which is not trusted and certainly by central government, sometimes even at local level, and both sides, central and local government, not connecting as directly and effectively with citizens as people expect nowadays.

Lucy: So it’s quite a radical set of recommendations that recommend very wide change.

Tony: It’s radical in the sense that it suggests that our current systems are not as effective as they might be, not as systematically designed and not as effectively run as they might be so that there’s plenty of room for improvement both in the outcomes that can be achieved and in the cost levels.

Lucy: So the event on Monday is going to feature some speakers, several of whom have been commissioners for the report, each giving a short speech, then some debate between the speakers and then it’s going to be opened up to the floor. Tell us what exactly the purpose of the event is.

In this event we’re focusing on one particular part of the policy commission report which is the part around creating 21st century public servants where we’re exploring what it will mean in the future to be a public servant who sets up a system of local public support for citizens, for people who want to use services, and encourages those people to make a contribution with their expertise, their knowledge, their enthusiasm and commitment, as well as simply having their needs met. So we’re talking about 21st century public servants who will be good at mobilising a co-produced approach to improving outcomes at local level.

Lucy: I notice that under looking at the new generation of public servants in the report there’s some suggestions for new job titles along the lines of ‘Weaver’, ‘Navigator’ and ‘Story-teller’, and I wondered if these were really what people wanted or whether this kind of picks up on the kind of non-jobs type job titles that get ridiculed, things like ‘Community Space Challenger Coordinator’ and ‘Temporary Change Manager’ and things like that which have not really found favour among taxpayers in the past.

You’re absolutely right. The roles that we talk about for the 21st century public servant are given names which we don’t expect to occur in job adverts. They’re names which may appear a little fancy but each of them is given that name because it actually resonates in a different way from some of the bureaucratic roles that we’ve been used to public servants having in the past and they didn’t go down well with the public either did they? So we’re talking about job roles, not job titles, and we are talking about people for example who are story-tellers because the very best public servants can inspire young people for example, or old people who are in pain, to have a different outlook on things, to have different expectations, to make an effort to do things differently for themselves and for others and that story-telling role, telling a future which is different in a way which is really convincing, that’s not been one of the things we’ve sought when we’ve appointed people in the past and it must be in the future because changing expectations and getting people to tell more optimistic stories is fundamental to creating better outcomes together with each other in the future. Another title that you’ve mentioned there is ‘Resource Weaver’ and this actually is something that the public sector does a lot of at the moment but people who do it don’t get credit for it. No longer is there a budget that you must keep to within a year. There are never enough monies within your budget. You have to weave together resources, including the resources of your partner agencies, the resources of the third sector in your area, the resources of some of your service users who are quite capable of taking other service users swimming or shopping and might quite enjoy doing so, and weaving those resources into a coherent way of improving things is fundamental. And the final job role that we talked about was ‘Navigator’. We debated that word. There are other words you might use – ‘Broker’ is perhaps a more obvious role but the idea of that role is that in the future, public servants shouldn’t just tell people what they as public servants can do and what people are eligible for, they should navigate people between opportunities and other agencies, other service providers offering opportunities so that in the end, citizens, service users, make up their own mind what they want but they see a wide range of choice, they understand the implications of that choice and they themselves have the opportunity to improve the choice which they’re offered. Helping people to navigate between opportunities may be more important than offering them one thing which you can do and which you’re proud of and that’s it, sunshine.

Lucy: So it’s about embedding these processes in people’s roles and recognising them. We’re not going to see job adverts out there for ‘Weavers’ [and] ‘Navigators’ -

I don’t think so but we’ll be very disappointed if we don’t see job adverts looking a lot more imaginative and actually calling for these skills and expertise as these roles in a way in which perhaps it’s easier to understand when you’re in an appointments committee but we don’t want purely bureaucratic responses to our report, we want imaginative and creative responses and we’ve talked about the imaginative and creative roles that the 21st century public servant needs to play.

Lucy: So, if you want to hear more about this you can go along to the event at the Conservative Party Conference – providing you’re going along to the conference because it’s a fringe event. So that’s on Monday, 3rd October…you’re going to have to get up pretty early, aren’t you? You’re going to be early Tony!

I intend to be there at 8 o’clock [8am].

Lucy: [Laughs] Yep, 8 o’clock [am] till 9.30[am] in Exchange 2 and 3 in Manchester. And it’s going to be chaired by Professor Edward Peck who’s the Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, obviously Tony will be one of the speakers, several other speakers there as well so do go along if you’re lucky enough to be at the Conservative Party Conference. Thank you very much, Professor Tony Bovaird.

It’s been my pleasure. I look forward to seeing some of you there.

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Lucy Vernall, and the producer was Andy Tootell.