Yesterday I attended a meeting which involved a number of representatives from the public sector, some business leaders and others from the voluntary and community sector. One of the matters we discussed was the need to find new ways of meeting the needs for people in our communities in an environment which sees even greater pressures on the public sector finances than we have experienced so far. Although the meeting took place in Brighton & Hove, it could just as easily have been held in East Sussex, West Sussex or further afield. As I have written previously, we are approaching a point at which the various public sector agencies are facing huge transformational change, beyond anything that any of us have experienced for many decades. The solution will include a degree of chaos, but if handled well could leave us with new ways of operating as communities. However the change, desperately difficult and expensive within our public agencies, will be even more of a shock for people up the street. There are broadly speaking two types of responses. The first is to dig in, ignore all of the signals of impending change and like the dinosaurs, wait for the sun to be blotted out by the deficit that continues to grow, after 4 years of a ‘fiscally responsible’ Government. The second is to recognise that both of the two main Government contenders are speaking about a similar scale of cuts and begin to operate differently. This second approach will demand open minds, broad discussions that dismiss nothing and space and capacity to hold these conversations. The solutions that emerge (there are certainly some to be found) will then need political support as we try to send the water back uphill to Westminster and Whitehall.
Assuming that we have dismissed the first option the challenge is to find the space for the discussions. Even in a period of austerity we still have management capacity within our public sector for holding these discussions. However the challenge will be how to bring into the purview of these managers and their Chief Executives the ideas that are currently not inside their organisations. Some agencies are more open than others to the idea that there are solutions available outside of the walls of the public sector. The challenge for them is to be honest about what they will contemplate and what is off limits. This level of honesty will lead them open to further challenge as some of their sacred cows are seen to be a barrier to change. The challenge for those of us outside of the public sector is to maintain our confidence that this is a real discussion, not some superficial skating over the surface. In the meeting yesterday I pointed out that enabling people to participate, people who are not necessarily working for a public sector agency may struggle to get to meetings without access to bus fares or child cover. These are just examples that are useful to test the determination of the public sector to even hold the discussions. Someone else pointed out that asking people to meet if the agenda (and parameters) are not clear, that unrealistic expectations will be raised. It was clear from the responses yesterday that we are some way from holding our discussions. We desperately need creativity to be released, but it will not come without a bit of effort. The alternative is the shovel and waiting strategy, there is never a T-Rex around when you need one!