Restoring faith in public services for a world in crisis

Andreea Anastasiu, Executive Director of the Government Outcomes Lab, calls for governments to reimagine their approach to addressing the challenges facing societies across the world.

Estimated reading time: 3 Minutes
Doctor in face mask and PPE

Earlier this summer, a UK Parliament Public Accounts Committee report into the award of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) contracts during the Covid-19 pandemic concluded that there are serious defects in the government’s stewardship of public money [1].

It’s a damning indictment, especially at a time of growing pressure on public budgets, and yet the report barely made the headlines. Perhaps that’s not surprising in a world that, from rising inequality to climate change and war, seems to be in permanent crisis. Or perhaps we’ve come to equate government contracting with bureaucracy and inefficiency, so much so that any sense of outrage has been replaced by quiet pessimism, mistrust, and public disengagement. But I think we must – and can – do better.

Government contracts rarely make the headlines. When they do, the failures reported (and it is inevitably the failures that grab the headlines) chip away irreparably at the trust we put in our institutions, in our politicians, and our civil servants to be good stewards of our public money. Few people, if any, would put government contracting at the top of their list of concerns, but there is so much at stake in the way government partners with businesses, social enterprises, and non-profits to provide public goods and services. It’s not just about spending billions of pounds of taxpayer money effectively, it’s about maintaining trust in public institutions, in government, and ultimately in democracy itself.

Getting PPE contracting right during a global pandemic was never going to be easy, but it is infinitely more challenging to design and manage adequate contracts for complex social issues – be it helping vulnerable individuals facing homelessness, providing adequate care for children who are not safe with their families, or supporting into employment individuals with disabilities and mental health issues.

But there are grounds for hope.

In the UK and around the world, at the cutting-edge of innovation in cross-sector partnerships [2] there are bold civil servants, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, business and civil society leaders pushing the boundaries to develop new models of collaboration and contracting. Even if I just look at the experiences I am most familiar with from our work at the Government Outcomes Lab, there are social outcomes contracts (also known as impact bonds) that tie payment to providers of social services to the achievement of measurable outcomes and use private funding from social investors to cover the upfront capital required for a provider to set up and deliver a service. There are place-based collaborations developed at local level that are bringing together the whole community to improve social outcomes. And there are public-private partnerships experimenting with more relational ways of contracting that seek to balance the need for flexibility in complex settings with that for robust accountability.

Asking the difficult questions

These pioneering approaches offer new ways to bring about more collaboration and innovation in public services. But to achieve their potential and see wider adoption we need the right systems, skills, and networks in place. We need robust data and transparency so we can fully understand the impact of this innovative approach, and we need space for dialogue across sectors, disciplines, and geographies to grow best practice in sustainable ways. We also need space to pause, take stock and ask difficult questions: how can we build the systems in which these innovative partnerships can thrive? How can we create the room for disruptive voices? Where does power lie in these partnerships? What are the secret ingredients to improving effectiveness in multi-agency collaborations? How can we measure accurately their impact?

The Covid-19 crisis showed how vital and powerful collaborations between government and other sectors can be, but also demonstrated the limits and challenges of these cross-sector partnerships. The need for government to work effectively and efficiently with other organisations, be it private or non-profit sector, is nothing new. But in an ever more complex world, we need to keep asking how government can reimagine the way it works with businesses, social enterprises, non-profits, and community groups to address the multi-dimensional crisis facing societies world-wide. It’s not an easy question, but it’s one worth asking over and over again if we are to restore faith in our public services and democratic institutions.

Join us at this year’s Social Outcomes Conference where we will be exploring these topics and lots more, with leading scholars, government officials, community and voluntary sector leaders, philanthropists, and socially motivated investors from around the world.

[1] The same Committee has previously found that quality and performance issues with these contracts meant that £2.7 billion of taxpayer money was at risk of not achieving value for money.

[2] A broad term that I use to describe a diverse range of collaborations or contracts between government and organisations in the private and voluntary sectors for the provision of public goods and social services.