Saving public services – a skills take on the Challenge Panel report

27 November 2014

Yesterday’s Challenge Panel report, looking at the future of service transformation within and beyond local government, was published to deserved fanfare.  The report is a brave attempt to look at a sustainable future for local public services, building on the success of what it describes as necessary but “irreversible” service changes centred on meeting the needs of individuals and families across the country.

It is for good reason the report is subtitled “why we need local deals to save public services”.  After multiple exhortations claiming “this can’t go on” in relation to ongoing austerity, the Panel has started to break new national ground in describing a strategy for cross-sectoral transformation with sustainability beyond just the next couple of years.

The panel was set up in April as part of the Government’s “continued commitment to deliver better, more open public services, centred around individuals’ and family needs rather than working in traditional Whitehall silos.” It benefited from high-level credibility and insight under Sir Derek Myers and Pat Ritchie, also crucially including panel members on skills, the NHS and some of the best of current private sector thinking on service change and innovation.

The panel has called for three fundamental changes:

  1. That local and central government use the person-centred approach of the Troubled Families programme to design services for groups and individuals with multiple and complex needs.
  2. More easily accessible and more flexible up-front funding for the up-front costs of transformation, and a sensible rationalisation of multiple divisive national “transformation funds”.
  3. Radical improvements in how data and technology are used to provide smarter services.

Twenty specific recommendations support this.  And within the report at the Commons launch this week, two particular themes impressed me.  Firstly the fact that the report is genuinely cross-sectoral and not, as some might have feared, focused largely or exclusively on local government.  Secondly, perhaps more importantly, is the binding in of the Treasury to the agenda it sets out.  Although HMT Ministers did not attend the launch, Kris Hopkins MP, the Under-Secretary of State at DCLG, was on solid ground confirming the support of Treasury ministers and officials throughout the panel’s work.  This bodes well for the next parliament in making some of this happen.

In his response to the report, Eric Pickles said, “This report now provides us with a blueprint as to how we can take this approach forward into other areas such as jobs, skills and early- years”. This has to be welcome, particularly in the skills and employment support world, where, as we have argued at NIACE, skills system reform is a fundamental transformation challenge facing public services over the next parliament.

The Challenge Panel’s proposals for co-ordinated Whitehall energy, and personalised, people-centred approaches to service and system reform are precisely what the skills and employment system needs.  Many commentators have made this case, but few have set out a blueprint for how this reform could be achieved.  Our 2015 Election Manifesto, calling for fundamental reform of the adult skills system, local deals on skills and strong devolution, and a highly personalised approach to skills and employment support reform reflecting the proper balance of individual, government and employer interests and financial contributions, is an exception to this.  It is good to see the Challenge Panel report echoing much of this agenda.

Today’s BBC news coverage of the systemic weaknesses in the current skills system to meet individual and employer demand confirms how these failures to transform skills and employment support are further holding back UK economic recovery.  Our new localism prospectus, supporting our reform focused manifesto, is going some way towards supporting local areas achieve real and lasting change in skills reforms focused on helping local people achieve their full potential in local labour markets.

We now need the full weight of the Transformation Panel’s analysis, and the Treasury’s backing of this, to help embed lasting change in the skills and employment system across local government, further and higher education, private and independent training providers, and employers. NIACE has shown how this might be achieved.  The agenda the Challenge Panel sets out, if it succeeds in balancing individual control, personalisation and fundamental system reform, could just ensure change in the skills system is not a flash in the pan applying in some lucky areas with advanced city deals, but as the panel’s report rightly demands, reflects lasting transformation that goes well beyond “general efficiencies and better ways of working.”