What it takes to give people real power in public services

Putting power in the hands of users of public services is top of everyone’s list at the moment. It was central to Ed Miliband’s recent speech on the reform of public services. No one would argue with the theory but putting it into real practice is something else. Just compare these two recent news items.

First from Ed Miliband’s speech: “Parents should not have to wait for some other body to intervene if they have serious concerns about how their school is doing, whether it is a free school, academy or local authority school. But at the moment they do. In all schools, there should be a “parent call-in”, where a significant number of parents can come together and call for immediate action on standards.”

Then at almost the same time the Derby Telegraph reported that “anxious parents of pupils at Derby’s failing Al-Madinah School have written to the Government demanding to know why the decision was taken to close its secondary section. They say that not enough time has been given to the new trust board and accuses the Department for Education of … playing out our children’s futures in the media yet again without considering their emotional and social well-being”.

So we’re left with the question, will giving power to parents be a way of forcing up standards or a way of protecting inadequacy? Will parents know how really to judge a school? Or will they be resentful about outsiders coming in and interfering in their community?

Sometimes it does need to be recognised that there is a place for expertise. This is something we should be learning from the current floods – simplistic demands for more dredging aren’t necessarily the answer and it could just be that specialists in the Environment Agency know what they’re doing. Similarly some schools do need radical intervention and some NHS services need reconfiguring because it’ll be better for patients.

But the problem in all these areas is that too often experts and the community at large don’t communicate. If we’re going to ask parents to form an accurate view about how their school is doing, they need access to the information held by the experts. But telling people to read the Ofsted report or look at the data dashboard isn’t necessarily the answer.

The kind of proposals in Ed Miliband’s speech will only work if underpinning them is a continuing dialogue and engagement between parents and school and if that dialogue is supported by an independent perspective on how the school is doing. That means:

– A regular Parents’ Council which hears and talks about the real issues facing the school – not just the summer fete!
– A willingness on the school’s part to share information even when it’s not all positive.
– An understanding on parents’ part that there will inevitably be problems sometimes and they need to help deal with them.
– A middle tier authority that keeps an eye on how schools are doing and offers parents and governors an honest and independent view about its strengths and weaknesses – Ofsted every 3 or 4 years can’t do this job.

The temptation amongst all professions is to close ranks against what they usually see as uninformed criticism. But a much better answer is to help to raise the level of understanding of the issues – good and bad – in the community at large. It’s only in that way that you’ll get beyond tokenism in involving people in decisions that affect them.

Another example from Ed’s speech is to involve patients in decisions about changes to NHS services. But a few patient representatives on a commissioning group will never on their own make necessary changes acceptable more widely. We desperately need structures within our communities that can make better connections between them and the professionals whose actions can be so important.

If we don’t do this, we’ll carry on developing a massive disconnect between most people and a few specialists who make the decisions. And good decisions will often be just as unpopular and mistrusted as bad ones. And politicians seeking cheap popularity will as often as not take the easy road and avoid what can be tough decisions …. like where and how you can really stop flooding and where you can’t.

Advertisements

3 Comments on “What it takes to give people real power in public services”

  1. David Pavett says:

    I agree that “The temptation amongst all professions is to close ranks against what they usually see as uninformed criticism”. We all experience this in areas we don’t work in but tend to be less critical of it, or even participate in it, in our own areas.

    I am unclear however just what is meant by “A regular Parents’ Council which hears and talks about the real issues facing the school – not just the summer fete!”. How does this differ from a PTA and having parent governors?

    I agree that there has to be “A willingness on the school’s part to share information even when it’s not all positive” but how likely is that when schools are competing with league tables. Who knows a school which does not massage some of the relevant statistics?

    Parents of course need to understand that the first move after identifying and confirming a problem is to look for solutions. This can be a collective and cooperative effort and not an antagonistic one as is all-too-often suggested by politicians (including, unfortunately, Labour ones).

    The “middle tier”! The “middle tier”! We all know that there has to be one. Even Gove is recognising this in his own way with his education commissioners. But with Labour all we have at the moment is a phrase and no detail. The detail is said to be forthcoming from the Blunkett Review. However Blunkett has already told as that there can be “no going back” i.e. no restoration of local authority powers. How is it that the head of a “Review” can tell us the conclusions that will flow from it even before it has been completed? How much does this tell us about the sort of democratic processes that the review itself is likely to recommend? We have local democracy in the form of local government. If we want to keep it then, to take a phrase from Labour’s argument about development land hoarding, we must “use it or lose it”.

    As John says it is a “… much better answer is to help to raise the level of understanding of the issues – good and bad – in the community at large.”

    I agree also that “We desperately need structures within our communities that can make better connections between them and the professionals whose actions can be so important.” The issue is do we want to solve the problems over and over again with each area of expertise for which we set up middle tier bodies or do we democratise and expand the powers and responsibilities of local government as the most important and longest standing form of local democracy that we have.

  2. fungalspore says:

    Interesting issues, but I am not at all convinced that education experts are better than parents at deciding what is best for children. It seems to me that much of what has been shovelled into the curriculum has been put there for political reasons. Standards? I’m not at all convinced by a results culture and, sadly, think that parents are more likely to be sucked into that nonsense than anyone working in education. But that doesn’t make teachers or curriculum designers experts in my eyes.