The 2020 Public Services Commission: 10 years after

By Ben Lucas and Dr Henry Kippin | 11 June 2020

The 2020 Public Services Commission started its work in 2008, and our final report was published in the early months of the Cameron Coalition Government.  We spanned two governments and the greatest financial crash of modern times. In the wake of that crash, and facing the twin spectres of unprecedented public sector deficits and growing demographic demand pressures, the Commission called for a new social contract between citizens and the state. Unfortunately, the scale of austerity that then ensued undermined much of the potential for social productivity that the Commission had identified. But as we now face an even bigger crisis in COVID-19, and think about how society can recover, the case for a new social settlement is even more compelling.

Undertaking our work at a time of growing concern about how public services would cope with the pressures they faced after the financial crash, the Commission set itself the task of going back to first principles. We rejected both an individualised, marketised model and a nationalised bureaucratic one.  Instead we proposed a social model, based on what we called social productivity.  Our belief was that social value and public service outcomes have to be co-produced, rather than just delivered by institutions. For example, increased healthy life expectancy, and better educational outcomes result from the interaction between targeted and tailored high quality public services and individual, family and community behaviours. This more tailored and decentralised approach is critical to tackling some of the root causes of inequality in society.  We said that ‘Public Services should be judged by the extent to which they help citizens, families and communities to achieve the social outcomes they desire’.  To enable this we proposed three fundamental shifts to drive social productivity:


  • a shift in culture towards community and individual agency, empowering and engaging citizens in the design of their own services;
  • a shift in power away from Whitehall to local cities, towns, communities, and citizens so that they can integrate a place based approach to public services;
  • and a shift in finance to underpin this, so that public services are more open, flexible and transparent to citizens.

In our view, this new way of thinking about public services would be best seen through the prism of what we called the ‘2020 locality’ in which Mayoral Combined Authority led devolution would be the catalyst for more socially productive local services.

What happened in the 2010s

In retrospect, we can see that the 2010s was one long series of social, political and cultural aftershocks from the 2008 financial crash. It was a decade of rupture, between globalisation and communities, growth and productivity, Britain and Europe, politics and people, and science and fake news.  In Britain, particularly in England, the three defining and interrelated features were austerity, a decline in average earnings, and a collapse in trust.

The area in which we have made most real progress is devolution within England.  The establishment of metro Mayors to sit alongside the Mayor of London, has been one of the most significant policy successes for the 2020 Commission.  Although these are relatively new institutions, they already feel like settled pieces in the governance landscape. They need to be supported through further, wider and deeper devolution. During the COVID-19 pandemic the role of local Leaders and Mayors has been pivotal in co-ordinating local responses; and the case for them to be at the heart of recovery and rebuilding feels unanswerable.

The big public policy question coming out of COVID-19 will be what is the new narrative that shapes the system’s thinking in the recovery era? However large the public sector deficit may be, this time the response cannot be a return to austerity.  Not from a Government that won big by convincing voters in the ‘red wall’ to lend it their votes to deliver Brexit and levelling up.  Moreover, the pandemic and its aftermath will have shone an even sharper spotlight on the underlying vulnerability of disadvantaged towns in the midlands and north to economic and social shocks.  These places don’t just need to be recapitalised through major physical infrastructure projects and public works. They also need investment in human capital development, from early years, through school education, to adult skills.  This in turn will require a new social settlement that prioritises spending on social and economic productivity.

What happens next?

As we start to turn our attention to building a sustainable and fair recovery, there are three important ways in which the 2020 Commission’s analysis offers pointers to what should happen next.

Treat people as agents of recovery

A welcome part of the Government’s response to coronavirus has been its recognition of how much depends not on what it does, but on what people do.  That’s why behavioural science has been at the heart of their strategy. This has sometimes faltered, especially in sometimes less than clear communication. But the challenge will be even greater as we move from lockdown to phased re-opening and then to building back better.  How this plays out will depend significantly on our behaviour. This in turn will need to be shaped by an informed dialogue between citizens, communities, places and Government about how we should collectively approach and manage risk.

We have already seen that simply announcing an intention is not the same as managing a complex problem. Instead we need a social productivity approach to education, re-opening schools and work places, that involves parents, teachers, unions, councils and employers in working together to find innovative solutions. Similarly, local people should be involved with councils in co-developing plans for how town and city centres will function in the future, and what their core role should be, drawing on the deal based approaches that have already been developed by a range of places. This ethos can be seen in Newcastle and North of Tyne’s emerging plans for post-COVID renewal, and in the determination of place leaders to make sure that ‘levelling up’ really does signify a shift from ‘growth at any cost’, to a balanced model in which citizens, state and business work together to shape a more balanced economy.

Invest in the infrastructure that can support social productivity

A major crisis, like the one we are experiencing now, often generates unexpected societal benefits.  The flourishing of social solidarity in the context of social distancing is the most notable of these in relation to COVID-19.  All over the country we have seen mutual aid organisations being established through which neighbours can support each other, and particularly those who have been forced to self-isolate at home.  This is social productivity in practice, local people providing reciprocal support to each other through the crisis.  But the real test of this social solidarity will lie in how we support each other through the long period of economic recovery, where the challenge will be suppressing the unemployment and poverty curve.  

We went into this crisis with a very weak social infrastructure, with neighbourhood, community and youth services cut to the bone and with a much depleted voluntary sector.   This social infrastructure will need to be rebuilt if we are to enable our communities to be more resilient. The social activism that has been sparked through the response to COVID-19 provides a new starting point for this.  But it will need careful nurturing and significant financial support to fulfil its potential.

Devolve social as well as economic functions to enable places to  build back better

This crisis has exposed the limitations of an overly centralised system of public and economic administration. Local government has played a critical role in managing the public health response. Now it is having to co-ordinate phased re-opening, and recovery.

The economy has largely been kept on ice. As lockdown begins to thaw, we will see the full extent of the wreckage.  The early indications, and independent assessments, suggest a jobs recession of unprecedented scale. The last time we saw anything like this was in the early 1980s. If we want to build back better, rather than repeat mistakes of the past, then we will need a different economic model, that treats human capital development as being a core economic aim.  It will require substantial and tailored programmes of employment support and skills development, alongside investment in education and in early intervention to support vulnerable families. This investment in people will need to be aligned to local economic strategies and capital programmes to support growth sectors and create jobs.  Devolution needs to be accelerated so that funding and powers are aligned to integrate public service reform and economic renewal, with long term pooled budgets, and greater social responsibilities for employment, skills and public health.

As we worked on the Commission’s final report, we were encouraged by President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel’s much quoted observation about the Great Financial Crash that this crisis is too good an opportunity to waste’.  Unfortunately, we know that the opportunity was largely wasted. In the face of an even bigger crisis now, our collective response must be better.  We shouldn’t just dial the clock back to how things were. Recovery should be about social, economic and environmental renewal, and that will require the new social settlement that we had hoped to see in the aftermath of 2008.  Perhaps, after all, the Commission on 2020 Public Services’ moment will come in 2020.

Ben Lucas is founder and managing director of Metro Dynamics, and founding director of the 2020 Public Services Trust. Dr Henry Kippin is director of  economic growth for the North of Tyne Combined Authority, and commission manager of the Commission on 2020 Public Services

The 2020 Public Services Commission - 10 years on: a collection of essays

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