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The UK’s general election result looks like it will finally break the political deadlock in the country. Much will be said in the coming days and weeks about the cause and meaning of the result. But the far-reaching changes proposed in all the main parties’ manifestos were an attempt to respond to the prevailing public mood.

Society in the UK and elsewhere seems to be at a historic inflection point. We hear that large groups of citizens are feeling "done-to" and disempowered, blown about by the winds of globalisation and resentful of the unequal allocation of its benefits. In turn, this is eroding trust in democratic institutions and the "experts" who buttress them. Both the old and new media amplify a collective feeling that society’s fabric is slowly unravelling, leading some to call this the "age of anxiety".

Against this dramatic backdrop, in the UK public service delivery has been playing out in increasingly dysfunctional ways. Big outsourcing companies are going out of business, but perhaps more concerningly, so are local authorities, as austerity squeezes services literally to breaking point. Even as successive governments have been distracted by Brexit, the centralised state has maintained a top-down approach to delivery, often unresponsive to local realities. Services are delivered in silos that our most vulnerable citizens bounce helplessly between. The effects of all this are showing up in ever-increasing numbers which seem to dominate our headlines – more rough sleeping, more people using food banks, more police call-outs for mental health issues, and so on. And behind every number is a struggling citizen.

Few would dispute the urgency of these issues, and few would dispute that it is ultimately up to public leaders to address them. A stronger government may be able to chart a pathway to reform – especially if public discourse at last moves on from Brexit. But there is not yet a new consensus within public services themselves about where that pathway should lead.

More money should help. But away from the debates about just how much more and where it should come from, many are reflecting deeply on the entire delivery philosophy of public services.

The way public services are arranged today is the result of several decades of reform inspired by the mechanisms of the private sector. Accompanied by labels like "new public management" and “neoliberal”, the logics of markets, managers, and money have dominated. Key public services have been outsourced or privatised, seemingly promoting a duty to shareholders above a public service imperative. Managers throughout the public services have been driven by targets set from the centre. Management practice has followed the principles of industrial production, where efficiency is king, specialisation is favoured over collaboration, and workers must follow processes rather than use their discretion.

Many people – and much recent research – would agree that these ideas, though once useful, are running out of steam. A new approach seems to be slowly emerging, with a very different core underlying idea: greater participation with communities. No longer should we view social problems medically, talking of a "treatment" at the right "dosage" which can be measured for its "effect". Rather, citizens themselves, grouped by a shared geography, interest or need, can participate in designing and delivering public services. No longer should we use top-down contracting mechanisms, making both public and private delivery bodies answerable to government agencies for the services they run. Instead, government and its agents should give away some of their decision-making power, and work together hand-in-hand with communities and civil society organisations. This might mean they hand over more cash no-strings-attached, and trust people to be intrinsically motivated to do a good job. For some of the most evangelistic proponents of the new approach, even the idea that it is possible to "deliver" outcomes is misguided – if we focus instead on working out what a better system would look like, the outcomes we want will appear.

These ideas are refreshing to many in public services who are deeply frustrated with the status quo, and some are experimenting with practical applications. The report we published earlier this year, Are We Rallying Together?, was aimed at unlocking some insights from people trying out ideas like this on the ground.

However, deeper reflection is needed on how vigorously these ideas should be pursued – and whether that means abandoning the benefits of what we already have. Relying too heavily on relationships and trust demands an idealised vision of human behaviour, and risks a resurgence of many of the vices that the reform of the past was intended to combat: inefficient services meaning wasted money; weakened accountability structures allowing patronage and corruption; variations in local funding leading to "postcode lotteries"; institutionalised prejudice; systematic abuse of the vulnerable. Many residents of less mature democracies or less dynamic economies are still attempting to exorcise these demons.

As a new UK government faces up to the public service problems it inherits, it will need to think not just about the level of spending required to address them, but the overall approach. As some call for it to commit to a radical new “paradigm” of public service delivery, it must avoid enthusiasm for the new ideas eclipsing the lessons of the past. Nor should it underestimate just how long effective change takes. A stronger government has the opportunity to steer a path which blends the old and new, manoeuvring around risks which overstretched public services may not be able to withstand. To test what this might look like, more room for experimentation and learning is needed. The government will have a genuine reform opportunity, and those who rely most on public services cannot afford for it to go wrong.

At the GO Lab, we will continue to reflect on these ideas together with our colleagues in the School of Government, and our past and present Fellows of Practice, who collectively bring many decades of experience grappling with the messy delivery of public services. We would greatly welcome hearing the thoughts and experiences of other practitioners and thinkers as well. Please get in touch.