As part of the 2015 International Research Society for Public Management conference, Birmingham's School of Social Policy hosted a debate on the future of public services with Sir Julian Le Grand, former health advisor to Tony Blair. Taking the form of a school debate, the workshop considered a deliberately provocative motion: this house believes that, given the challenges we face, choice and competition are the least worst way of reforming public services.
Speaking in favour of the motion, Sir Julian argued that public service reform needs external challenge – and that other forms of providing such a challenge (such as government targets or enhanced regulation) have potentially toxic side-effects. In contrast, choice and competition can empower people using services and reduce the ability of monopoly providers to organise services in their own interests.
Speaking against the motion, Birmingham’s Robert Page (Reader in Democratic Socialism and Social Policy) argued that choice for some can mean a worse service for others, and that more universal, egalitarian approaches are needed to ensure a fair and transparent trade-off between different competing interests and needs.
After group discussion, a panel of local service users, practitioners and managers gave their personal response, reflecting on experiences in youth justice, social care, health and housing settings. Delegates then debated the issues in plenary, covering topics such as the role of values and empathy, the importance of co-production, the need for different approaches in different contexts, and the best way of choosing and implementing a blend of reform mechanisms.
With an audience vote at the start and end of the debate, the motion was overwhelmingly defeated – but more delegates were persuaded by the arguments to change their vote in favour of choice and competition during the course of the session (testimony to the contested nature of the issues at stake!)