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Beyond getting Brexit done
Advice for the new government from citizens, the public sector and the frontline of public services
General Election 2019 has delivered a new parliament and a new government with a new mandate. After a campaign that promised to ‘get Brexit done’, the Conservative administration will be keen to bring the Prime Minister’s EU Exit deal back to Parliament and start making good on the rest of its manifesto commitments. Those commitments represent a domestic agenda with significant implications across the UK public sector – and our State of the State research offers insight into that agenda from the people who matter most.
Published just days before the election was called, The State of the State explores government and public services from three perspectives. For a citizen view, we commissioned an Ipsos MORI survey into public attitudes towards government spending and priorities. For a strategic view, we interviewed fifty public sector leaders including senior civil servants, chief constables, NHS Trust directors and council chief executives. And for a view from the frontline, we ran a crowdsourced conversation with 240 public sector professionals including nurses, teachers and police officers.
Our research points to five observations relevant to the Conservative manifesto and its commitments that look set to be taken forward in the upcoming Queen’s Speech.
1 Government has the opportunity to define a post-austerity, public sector vision
There’s no doubt that the UK public has become weary of austerity. Our State of the State citizen survey tests the public mood on the balance between tax and spending and for the past four years has found six in ten people want to see greater public spending – even if that means tax rises.
Similarly, austerity came up time and time again in our crowd conversation with frontline workers who described it as a demoralising influence on the public services. The majority said that cuts have affected the quality and scope of services they deliver, and ultimately, 85 per cent of the crowd said that austerity has affected the public.
All of this means that extra funding for public services, including the £34 billion a year promised in the Conservative manifesto for the NHS, will inevitably be well-received by the public and by public sector professionals alike.
However, the view from public sector leaders is more complex. Many told us that austerity – whilst tough – has been a constructive driver for change and as we move into a post-austerity age, some wondered what forces would shape the sector’s future in its absence. An NHS non-executive argued that extra funding for the health system ‘gets dissipated into keeping the lights on and doing things the same way they have always been done’. A chief fire officer also told us that ‘the public sector is drifting’ in the absence of a national strategy. All told, our interviews suggest that public sector leaders want central government to set out a vision for reform that is not just based on spending more money, but on the continuous improvement and development needed to help the sector thrive.
2 Solving the social care crisis requires political will
Social care remains in crisis and more than 1,000 days have passed since the government first mooted a policy paper to explore fixing it. But ahead of the General Election, the Conservative manifesto offered a three-point plan to define a solution. It comprises a cash injection of £1 billion to pay for more staff and better facilities, urgent cross-party talks to find a consensus for long-term reform, and a guarantee that no-one will need to sell their home to pay for care.
Our State of the State research underlines the importance of engaging the public in fixing the social care crisis. Our 2017-18 citizen survey showed that half the public wrongly believe that social care is free at the point of need and two-thirds believe it is provided by the NHS – so given the far-reaching implications of a comprehensive, long-term solution, public outreach and explanation could well be needed.
The public sector leaders we interviewed were divided on whether a cross-party consensus is the best way to reach a solution. As the past few years have shown, consensus in Parliament is not necessarily straightforward, and one NHS leader argued that decisive leadership and strong political will within government could be more important than a willingness to seek consensus.
3 Investment in skills could boost regional economies and tackle inequalities
The Conservative manifesto was clear that the UK’s prosperity should be felt in all of its regions and that infrastructure investments should reach ‘every corner’ of the UK. Our citizen poll certainly found that this is an issue for the public: according to our survey, the majority of people in the north of England and in Wales believe that their area gets shortchanged in terms of infrastructure spending.
Our interviews with public sector leaders dug deeper into issues around regional economies. Several told us that UK’s regional imbalance, income inequalities and low productivity are the country’s more pervasive challenges and they went on to argue that one area of public policy connects them all: skills.
They wanted to see greater investment in further education alongside a fresh approach that would align local authorities – including those operating as combined authorities – with colleges and businesses to make sure that local skills’ needs are met systematically. Their argument was that boosting skills provision would empower individuals by improving their employability and give regions the skills they needed to power local, inclusive growth. Inevitably, this isn’t as straightforward in practice as the theory suggests. Interviewees from further and higher education warned that it’s too easy to assume people can be pipelined through courses and into jobs - but they agreed that more can be done to support further education and make sure that councils, businesses and colleges are operating in concert.
The Conservative manifesto makes a number of commitments to support further education, including a £2 billion upgrade for college buildings and a £3 billion National Skills Fund. They are practical steps forward, but after a decade that has seen college funding cut by almost a third, a wider set of reforms as this Parliament progresses may be needed to deliver a step-change in further education’s social and economic impact across the UK’s regions.
4 The UK has an opportunity to consolidate its environmental leadership
Our State of the State citizen survey found that concerns about climate change have ramped up over the past year. Some 51 per cent said they are worried about the future of the environment, up from 37 per cent last year, suggesting that the UK has experienced the Greta Thunberg effect. The Conservative manifesto appears to respond to this shift in public opinion, promising a Budget that prioritises the environment within 100 days of a new administration.
The survey also found remarkably strong support for government intervention. Responding to a range of options, 69 per cent of the public want more laws that force companies to be environmentally-friendly, 65 per cent want more bans for products that harm the environment and 58 per cent want more taxes on environmentally-damaging products. Specific Conservative manifesto commitments include a levy to increase the proportion of recyclable plastics in packaging and a new Office for Environmental Protection, but more fundamentally, it recommit the government to net zero carbon emissions in the UK by 2050.
That commitment already put the UK ahead of other major economies and the government has a significant opportunity to extend its environmental leadership in 2020 when Glasgow plays host to 200 world leaders at the to the Conference of the Parties, otherwise known as COP26. That summit follows the groundbreaking COP21 in Paris in 2015 and will explore how governments are meeting their environmental pledges.
5 The UK could set the global gold standard in public administration
Brexit may have dominated a substantial part of Civil Service capacity, but our State of the State interviews with public sector leaders found that it has enhanced the way Whitehall and the devolved administrations operate. Senior civil servants told us that the pressures of EU exit have accelerated improvements in project delivery skills, stimulated more joined-up working between departments and provided government with greater clarity on the UK economy and administration.
Debates around the future of the state inevitably fixate on how governments needs to change, but often overlook their success. Actually, the UK Civil Service has been ranked as the world’s best, and looks set to continue developing as it delivers Brexit. The Conservative manifesto does not include much detail on Whitehall reform – although it does commit to improving the quality of evidence and data in policymaking – but the UK is well placed to set the global gold standard in public administration and export UK expertise, experience of successful transformation and digital know-how.