A new survey of public sector leaders shows they are worried about the speed and scale of service cuts, but cautiously welcome some of the government’s decentralising reforms
Senior managers and directors in the public sector are entering a period of financial belt-tightening and difficult decisions. Having become accustomed to rising budgets – with twelve consecutive years of year-on-year real term increases in spending on public services between 1998/99 and 2009/10 – leaders have overseen a period of massive growth in the public sector over the past decade.
But the largesse of recent years is now over. Last autumn the Spending Review for the period until 2014/15 announced cuts averaging 19% across government departments as the government seeks to reduce the budget deficit. And the 2011 Budget projects a sustained period of reduced spending on public services, meaning that reform of the sector (in some form) is no longer a goal but a financial necessity.
The government has ambitious plans for public services. While the recent ‘Open Public Services’ white paper may have eased the pace of change, the government still expects to see many of the functions of the state moved downwards, to the local level, and outwards to the private and not-for-profit sectors. Social enterprises, GP consortiums and free schools are just some of the new models of service delivery anticipated to take over many of the functions of public bodies.
However, there are signs that the government is struggling to convince those whose job it is to implement these changes and meet new budgets of the merits of its approach. A new poll of public sector leaders by Ipsos MORI reveals some scepticism over Cameron’s plans. While most decision-makers in the public sector have a good understanding of the government’s objectives and priorities in their sector, just 38% agree with these ideas. More perturbing for the government, nearly two-thirds of senior managers and directors within the public sector do not think that the government’s policies will improve the state of public services in the long-term.
Even Whitehall itself has yet to fully buy in to the government’s plans. While nearly half of senior civil servants agree with the government’s objectives, a quarter disagree. Further, almost three in five do not think the government’s policies will improve the state of public services in the long run, perhaps indicating unease over shifting control from the centre.
Education professionals, consisting of university vice-chancellors and head teachers of schools, are particularly dubious about the reform agenda. More than half disagree with the government’s objectives and priorities within the education sector and 71% do not think government policies will have a beneficial impact on public services more generally. Those in the health sector are similarly doubtful about the long-term benefits of the government’s policies. These findings put public sector leaders in line with the general public, who are similarly pessimistic about the future of public services.
These misgivings over the potential impact of policies may be related to general pessimism within the public sector about the state of the British economy. Fewer than one in six public sector leaders think the economy will improve over the next 12 months while 43% think it will get worse, suggesting that, with economic growth so sluggish, they do not think now is the time for drastic action. Indeed, those who advocate slower cuts in spending outnumber those who say it is important to cut spending quickly by almost three to one, which is identical to the balance of opinion among the general public.
This idea that the public sector is worried about the long-term risks and implications of lower budgets chimes with the findings of research Ipsos MORI conducted on behalf of Zurich Municipal at the end of last year. This showed that many leaders in the public sector would like more time to plan how to spread budget reductions and consider what impact they will have in the long-term.
It may be, therefore, that it is the speed of the change rather than the substance of it that is most concerning leaders in the public sector. The majority support greater public control of services and more autonomy for local providers. This indicates that despite their concerns about the economy and the effect of cuts on public services, public sector leaders are broadly in agreement with some of the key principles behind the reforms.
There is also some support for the government’s flagship Big Society idea: a majority think it will either be a good thing for their sector or will make no difference. The government can draw further encouragement from the fact the local government sector, central to the success of the concept, is the most supportive of the Big Society. This all means that the government may yet find itself able to bring along public service leaders in its drive to implement wide-ranging reforms amid economic gloom.
Reforming public services – especially structural reforms on the scale the government is proposing – is never easy. Doing so against a backdrop of a slow economic recovery is doubly difficult. Reforming services without the support of those whose job it is to drive through reform is virtually impossible. As Canada found out in the 1990s, eliminating a sizeable deficit through reform of public services is a societal project, not a normal budget exercise. A reduction such as this involves a realignment of the role of government in society, and therefore requires the co-operation of all involved. While there is broad support among leaders in the public sector for the principles of the government’s reforms, there is clearly more work to do to convince them of the speed and efficacy of its approach if it is to gain their full support.
Helen Cleary is associate director at Ipsos MORI