The concept of relational welfare, pioneered by the innovative work of Participle, has been gathering political support in recent weeks. The Labour leader Ed Miliband said in his Hugo Young lecture that ‘the challenges facing public services are just too complex to deliver in an old-fashioned, top down way without the active engagement of the patient, the pupil or the parent’. At IPPR we have published a recent contribution to this debate, setting out how we believe the shift towards a more relational state can be enacted in practice.
In the debate that has followed questions of political culture have come centre-stage. Is this very different way of delivering public services fundamentally at odds with our politics? Indeed does it require a de-politicization of public services?
Most contributors agree that attempts by national politicians to control services from Westminster and Whitehall have gone far too far. But how feasible is it to expect elected politicians to resist the temptation to intervene when things go wrong in a particular NHS Trust or children’s services department and the media calls on them to act? In a state where most revenue is raised and spent through Whitehall these political pressures are inevitable.
The key is for politicians to decentralise significant budgets to a local level in exchange for clearer local accountability. There is evidence from devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London that where budgets are devolved to a clearly visible local body, public expectations about responsibility shift accordingly. Voters hold Alex Salmond to account for the Scottish NHS, not Jeremy Hunt. Similarly Londoners know that when something goes wrong on the tube, it is Boris who is in charge. To unlock a more relational state we need a devolution of power to the English towns and cities as radical as the devolution processes of the late 1990s/early 2000s.
But is even this enough? In an important contribution Matthew Taylor has argued that even the proposed decentralisation still assumes that politicians, rather than ordinary people, will define the outcomes. The alternative, he argues, should be to support citizens to decide what they want and help them to achieve it.
I agree with Matthew that too often politicians start from the paternalistic assumption that they know what is best, which can rob people of agency and independence. We must, across a range of areas, directly empower citizens to determine both outcomes and the means of achieving them. However, we can’t have personal budgets for everything: in a country where 40% of GDP is spent by the state it is inconceivable that politicians should have no role in setting objectives for that expenditure. Moreover, that would be undesirable, entailing a depoliticisation of public services, which are collectively funded and need to be the subject of national political debate.
This need not mean a return to hundreds of targets: it rather means selecting a small number of high level system goals, monitoring outcomes to identify success and failure and intervening where there is systematic failure. This requires a change in our political culture, but not an absence of politics.
Rick Muir is Associate Director for Public Service Reform at IPPR.