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John Tizard: Listen to, and above all involve the real experts – service users, tenants, staff…

Tuesday June 27th, 2017

There is absolutely no excuse for not involving and listening to critical stakeholders when the public sector is developing policy or designing, commissioning, procuring, monitoring and reviewing services.

John Tizard

John Tizard

At a practical level, for local government this means ‘involving’ local communities, service users, local businesses, and voluntary sector bodies – all, in their own way, representing and speaking for communities, service users, consumers and staff.

Such an approach should be a basic duty for all public bodies. I wish that I could confidently say that regulation is unnecessary to ensure that political and executive leaders, and public service professionals do, in practice, involve and listen to key stakeholders.  Unfortunately, and far too often, experience suggests that regulation may well be needed – which is a sad indictment on those self-appointed (or even ‘elected’) elites, who, for whatever reason, consistently fail to involve stakeholders – a behaviour that is short-sighted, inexplicable, and frankly, perverse.

Why? Because experience suggests that such involvement increases public confidence in political and wider public sector decision-making. It also more likely means that services are designed and delivered in ways that meet their users’ needs and expectations, because it enables decision makers to draw upon the experiences and expertise of those closest to service delivery – service users, consumers and staff.

In my opinion, it is also vital that public bodies clearly set out the terms of any engagement strategy and unambiguously state, right at the outset, any ‘givens’ (because there are always some), which cannot or will not be changed, whatever the stakeholders’ views. Such limits may be based on legal requirements, wider political and public interest considerations, or resource constraints. Still, in all such cases, the public sector (elected politicians and officers/officials) should be open about their reasoning and justifications, but also be prepared to be accountable for their decisions and actions or inactions.

And frankly, even when such constraints can be justifiably argued, public sector decision-makers would gain much benefit from making a deeper and more sustained effort to understand and be seen to take on board stakeholder views – especially if the consensus of such is likely to be or is in fact contrary to the intended direction of policy implementation.

Charities, voluntary and community organisations, local businesses and other representative groups can often quite effectively represent the views of service users and communities, just as trade unions seek to represent staff.  And they can often contribute specialist professional/practical expertise, and provide a ‘voice’ for service users. And finally, they often also have a critical advocacy role.

Public sector leaders should respect the right of these organisations to challenge and campaign, and not use such activities as a reason for excluding stakeholders from decision-making and service design. Equally, they should not seek to selectively listen only to those who might be the least challenging or awkward. Managing relationships and engaging with those who challenge and dissent is a fundamental leadership role.

Of course, there will be occasions when stakeholder groups will themselves prefer to opt out of the opportunity to engage in decision-making in order to strengthen their campaigning position, and/or to distance themselves from specific political decisions. This is understandable and reasonable.

I have made the point in this short article that every aspect of public policy and public service commissioning, procurement, design, delivery and review should be subject to greater public, community, service user and staff involvement.  And I believe that such input is critical in strategic commissioning and any consequential procurement.

Service users, local communities, businesses with an interest, staff, their representative bodies and other stakeholders but above all service users including business service users should be involved in every aspect of strategic commissioning including:

  • identifying needs
  • identifying the options for meeting such needs, having had access to all appropriate information including the potential ‘trade-offs’ between options
  • any ‘make or buy’ decisions as to whether or not to provide the service ‘in-house’, or delivered in partnership with others, or through outsourcing
  • designing the service model
  • setting objectives and targets for the service
  • resource allocation
  • monitoring and reviewing

When services are subject to outsourcing, they should be involved in:

  • drawing up the specifications
  • setting contract terms
  • provider selection
  • designing the service model
  • setting objectives and targets for the service
  • resource allocation
  • monitoring and reviewing

I also believe that contracted service providers should pursue similar stakeholder engagement.

Of course, it is vital that such approaches add value and do not create disproportionate burdens and costs for any party. Professional and political judgements should be made on the right approach for specific activities.

For their part, service users should have the right to challenge external service providers and, subject to agreed procedures, and have the right to require the procuring public body to review an existing contract and consequently revise or even terminate the contract. The same principle should apply to services managed directly by the public sector and public infrastructure provision.

In 2017 there should be no excuse for failing to involve service users and other key stakeholders. Let’s make it a reality. And let procurement teams set the pace.

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