In two previous posts about the Total Place pilots, I listed 40 common problems in public services and considered whether the British state could be described as unfit for purpose.
In the latter post I argued that the Total Place experiments are important for pointing the way forward, but are missing an important element.
The same government department involved in Total Place, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), is also involved in a separate set of pilots using participatory budgeting (which I've previously written about), in which the public is given a decisive say over how funds are spent in their community.
But for some reason the DCLG has failed to join up the two projects or realise how one could impact on the other.
The interim evaluation report on participatory budgeting in England found that the schemes "improve relationships within communities and between communities and service providers".
This lack of understanding between service providers and citizens is one of the key weaknesses identified by the Total Place experiments.
In addition, participatory budgeting was found to draw on "local knowledge and opinions to ensure resources are spent on what matters to local people" - again one of the core aims of Total Place.
As the evaluation report found:
"Where public sector agencies wish to engage more often, more meaningfully and effectively with the public than traditional approaches allow, participatory budgeting offers a workable option."
Yet despite this conclusion, the Total Place evaluation reports had surprisingly little to say about involving the public, and nothing at all to say about giving the public a say over their services.
Missing out the public
Despite being one of the most radical experimenters with Total Place, Birmingham's evaluation report was typical of most others in its approach to public engagement.
It spoke of drawing on the knowledge of local councillors to understand the needs of communities, and said that the "swathe of ideas will be tested with local residents".
And the report on Total Place in Worcestershire focused on the needs of "leaders, politicians and non-executive directors, managers and professional staff across the public sector".
What this illustrates is the extent to which the Total Place projects remain the inward-looking preserve of professionals, who are keen to maintain control of the change process.
While it might be an improvement that the public will be consulted on their proposals, it is nowhere near as radical a step as it should be.
Perhaps the most stunning comment of all was included in the Manchester City Region report.
"In our training sessions we met some nervousness when we suggested delegates went out and talked to people to try and hear how they experienced parenthood, followed by amazement at how happy people were to talk: 'I was completely gobsmacked that people on the street really wanted to speak to me and I was so surprised about the level of detail they wanted share. I can really see how using this method can help me to think differently about our service.'"
It speaks volumes about existing approaches to engagement that talking to parents is seen as a novel way of gaining an understanding about the needs of parents.
Learning the lesson
The Croydon evaluation report comes close to accepting the need for radical change.
It notes that the top-down linear model of delivering public services is "coming to the end of its useful life".
"Attempts to reform services down single departmental, professional or issue-based lines have often given rise to unintended consequences; thinking narrowly about policy solutions can mitigate one need, but exacerbate others. We need to take a systems thinking approach.
"Transformative innovation tends to happen when new voices enter the design or policy-making process. We do not have all the answers. Government will need to become more porous: we are convinced that there is power in letting people into the previously closed systems of policy making. The people who can often offer the most – and often have been least welcomed – are the users of public services themselves, and indeed those who choose not to use them...
"We were particularly struck by the tenacity and capacity very ordinary families demonstrated in trying to secure what they needed for their children; and the articulate way in which they described the effort they put in to overcome 'the system'. It made us realise that we often inadvertently treat citizens as passive recipients of services, rather than active and energetic participants in improving outcomes. We realised that - together - we are 'the system' which sometimes can feel such a hindrance rather than a help. Citizens and their wider families should be seen as significant contributors to securing better outcomes."
And the Bradford report also accepts that:
"By engaging and empowering our communities and our citizens and by adopting the culture of people and place rather than organisation and/or department at a central and local level we can significantly change the way public services are accessed and delivered."
Yet none seem to have made the step between engagement and control.
There is much talk of redesigning services around people, mapping user journeys and developing case studies of customer experiences. But nowhere in the process do the public actually seem to be in control of any of the decisions being made about the changes to the services they are paying for and receiving.
The Lewisham report makes a nod in that direction by suggesting one of its options is for more "user directed change" in which citizens purchase their services.
But this is to miss the opportunities for engaging residents not as consumers but as citizens capable of making active choices about the public services they wish to receive and how their taxes should be allocated.
So Total Place, while focusing on better services, isn't giving the public any extra control over what they should be.
Will engagement and outcomes be any better if the people who design the new services are the people who designed the old services?
I mentioned at the start that it seems a major omission that the DCLG hasn't joined up the dots between its Total Place and Participatory Budgeting trials.
It is also odd that chief secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne also missed the opportunity, given that the Treasury is the co-sponsor of Total Place, while Byrne has taken a close interest in public control over public services.
It is not just Labour that is missing the opportunities, however.
Total Place has cross-party support yet the Conservatives have also failed to make much of the link to participatory budgeting, despite the natural fit with David Cameron's vision of a 'big society'.
Knowing where to cut
There is another pressing reason for greater public engagement.
In an era of significant spending cuts, it is clear that the required savings will have to come not just from greater efficiency but from dropping some programmes.
And if services are to be reduced, allowing the public to make decisions about priorities is one way to reduce the fall-out and secure collective acceptance of the results.
This also highlights one of the other weaknesses in Total Place - that it appears not to be systematically addressing which services should be dropped and what new ones should be implemented. Its main focus is on making existing services better, but if they are not the right services in the first place then is this an optimal approach?
Once in a lifetime
The Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire evaluation report says there is now a "once in a lifetime opportunity to transform public service delivery and the relationship with citizens".
If that is the case, the relationship needs to be recast with a far greater role for the public.
The report on participatory budgeting found that among its benefits are greater community pride and sense of ownership, community cohesion, increased awareness of how local services work, a better understanding of how public money is spent and clearer lines of accountability.
If Total Place leads to an overhaul of public service delivery, it would be a huge missed opportunity if the public is once again excluded.