The RSA



Widening the lens on public services

A new project at the RSA looks at how the UK can learn from public services in the developing world, many of whom face similar pressures. Henry Kippin outlines its scope and invites readers to get engaged.

The politics of debt looms large in the mind of policymakers. Fiscal rectitude trumps social spending.  International financial institutions argue that the state is too big and that public spending must be cut back. Over-arching frameworks for public service reform are struggling to change the day-to-day reality of a fundamental mismatch between social demand and fiscal resources. Doing more with less is mandatory, particularly at a local level, where NGOs and community-based organisations are being asked to do more to build the resilience and mobilise the latent capacity of communities.

Public services – long the preserve of an allegedly inefficient and overly-bureaucratic state – are being reshaped through decentralisation, multi-sector delivery chains and an injection of private capital.  Citizens are politically aware and media-savvy, yet have low expectations of the ability of their government to transform social outcomes for the better in their lifetimes.  Are we describing the UK? Somewhere in Europe? Asia? Africa? It is hard to tell. 

Despite manifestly different histories, political economies and power relationships, the trajectory of public service reform in the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world suddenly feels more convergent than ever. A new paper from the 2020 Public Services Hub at the RSA argues that this makes it a good time to ‘widen the lens’; to look beyond the usual suspects for policy innovation, and learn the lessons from countries that have spent generations trying to deliver services and sustain social cohesion within a context of extreme debt and pressing social challenges.

We start with a big caveat. Direct comparison between enormously different countries and contexts is patently ridiculous. The dangers of policy ‘cherry picking’ are well known. But beneath the obvious differences, there is a rich body of argument, evidence, successes and failures that the UK can learn from the politics of development. Not least of these about the social cost of imposing reform and austerity from above on fragile populations. Working with the Overseas Development Institute and the University of Sheffield’s Public Services Academy, we set out six areas we could look to for learning and inspiration.

First, how do we reshape services to ‘work with the grain?’ This requires us to understand and work with existing local institutions and networks, not overlaying with new models of universal ‘best practice’. The African Power and Politics Programme is at the forefront of this approach, bringing together researchers in France, Ghana, Niger, Uganda and the UK to identify ways of exercising power and doing politics that work for development.

Second, how do we harness ‘leapfrog’ technologies? Mobile technology is being used to great effect in Kenya and Ghana for example, driving a new generation of more accountable and more responsive public and private services.

Third, how do we target limited resources? Mexico’s Oportunidades and Brazil’s Bolsa Familia initiatives are living case studies of how targeted cash transfers can be used to incentivise social responsibility and contribute to poverty reduction goals.

Fourth, how can policy be realigned around outcomes? Payment by results lies at the heart of much of the government’s thinking on public services. But it is now new; ‘cash on delivery’ for foreign aid is being explored by DfID, the World Bank and others, and provides important lessons for the government as it looks to embed similar logic across UK public services.

How do we create a robust evidence base? Research from MIT’s JPAL Lab has explored the benefits of randomised evaluations as a means of evaluating the effectiveness of policy implementation in the developing world. NESTA and others are already following suit here in the UK with the ‘Alliance for Evidence’.

Finally, what models of partnership deliver best? Public sector/NGO relationships are well developed in many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, yet they are not always mutually beneficial or reinforcing.   Could a more evolutionary approach to commissioning and tendering create better relationships and more effective service delivery and how could the UK learn from this?

Widening the Lens is the first step of a research agenda designed to explore these themes.  Our approach should be open, creative and critical.  Those we have spoken to have warned of the dangers of simply wheeling a UK ‘shopping trolley’ around the developing world in search of off-the-shelf policy solutions; but they have also flagged up what everyone stands to gain from a more reflective, less parochial attitude to evidence and policy making.  We welcome input, opinions and collaboration from UK and international policy makers and researchers that will develop this agenda and enable us to create a ‘shared space’ for ideas and policy development.  For more information, contact admin@2020psh.org.


Henry Kippin is a Partner of the 2020 Public Services Hub at the RSA. Follow him on Twitter @h_kippin

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