Magazine article Renewal

An Emergent Consensus on Public Services

Magazine article Renewal

An Emergent Consensus on Public Services

Article excerpt

The Relational State

Edited by Graeme Cooke and Rick Muir

IPPR, 2012

At the launch of the national evaluation of the Personal Health Budgets pilots in early 2013, the evaluation team expressed some surprise about how much people had valued the time spent sitting down with a professional to talk at length about their interests and needs--rather than this being merely the means to an end of a care plan and a budget (for the full evaluation report see Forder et al., 2012). Such a finding will not surprise contributors to this new IPPR collection on The Relational State. Although the editors make a claim for the novelty of the content--stating that it replaces the 'virtual silence across much of the centre-left on questions relating to public services and statecraft' (p. 3)--it is best seen as a culmination of work on public services emanating from a range of bodies. These include the IPPR itself, Demos, the Young Foundation, NESTA, the New Economics Foundation, Participle and the RSA. Together these works signal an emergent consensus on the value of relational accounts of public services: that 'recognising the importance of human relationships could revolutionise the role of the state', as the subtitle of the collection puts it.

The lead essays in the collection are provided by Geoff Mulgan and Marc Stears; they each provide a wide-ranging and provocative piece, followed by shorter articles on specific aspects of public services which situate them in the context of Mulgan's account of the 'relational state'. The editors are keen to highlight that there are key differences in what is argued by different contributors: this is not a single blueprint for action. Mulgan, for example, takes a much more instrumental view of relationships and a more interventionist view of the state than Stears. Mulgan, along with the editors and contributors such as Nick Pearce, seem to be explicitly looking for a new 'centre-left statecraft' for Labour, and to make peace with its governing legacy along the way. The editors position the 'relational state' argument as a 'blend of "Blue Labour" and "New Labour" thinking' (p. 10). Others such as Stears are less haunted by the 'dominant statecraft of the last Labour government' (p. 8) and more concerned about the democratic potential of a more relational politics. Whereas for Mulgan better relationships are a crucial element of achieving better outcomes in public services, in Stears' essay democratic relationships have intrinsic value. States themselves cannot be relational, Stears argues; they can only protect the time, the places and the institutions that enable people to engage in relational activity. He frames the state as an 'agent of standardisation', whereas 'nothing is more flexible, contingent, ever-changing, particular or beyond control than a proper, rewarding, human relationship' (pp. 38-9).

The editors (Graeme Cook and Rick Muir) provide a substantive introductory discussion of these themes and tensions (which is a useful entry point for readers in a hurry). The whole collection is thoughtful and challenging, and it is impossible to do justice here to its full range of ideas and proposals. There are four areas, though, where I would have liked to see the authors set out their ideas more fully.

The first is how people working in public services can be supported to acquire the skills required by the relational state. Mulgan argues that the skills and capabilities of people working in a relational state will be different to those in the 'delivery state': 'the ability to empathise, communicate, listen and mobilise coalitions of citizens and professionals to achieve social goals' (p. 10). For example, he suggests that we 'make healthcare more like education, deliberately aiming to raise the skills of the public through, for instance, courses or e-tutorials' to support people with diabetes and dementia. Such findings resonate with those of the University of Birmingham Policy Commission (2011) into the future of local public services, which identified new roles that staff will play in twenty-first century public services--'navigators', 'brokers', 'storytellers', 'resource-weavers'--as part of a process of supporting citizens to be 'co-authors of their own lives' (1). …

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