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By Mike Owen, CIPFA President
With only ten months to go until the country decides on the next government the opportunity presents itself to take a longer-term view of the policies we need to see an incoming administration adopt.
Whether there is great public enthusiasm for the policies on offer or not, we know that the outcome of the election will have a profound effect on the future cost, efficiency and sustainability of public services which the electorate expect and depend upon.
We know too well the pressures of rising demand for public services, the continuing need for fiscal austerity, the inefficiencies of centrally controlled funding and an over-centralised government.
And we also know just how much people’s trust in public bodies has been draining away recently. If political leaders are to regain some measure of public trust and credibility we need to be asking some important questions of all the parties contesting next year’s elections.
Will the policies on offer deliver efficiency, will they be flexible enough to mitigate risk, will they promote accountability and be farsighted enough to be genuinely sustainable?
To achieve fiscal sustainability we need to see a clear redefinition of the relationship between the individual and the state for a post-Bevan society, even if that does mean reassessing the affordability of a raft of entitlements that my own generation has held on to.
We need governments to budget for the medium to long term, to invest in growth and in early intervention for the benefit of future generations rather than tempting the voters with short-term policies that are electorally appealing now but ultimately put back even further the point of fiscal balance.
We need to address how government is structured on two accounts: first, to deliver genuinely integrated services that meet the needs of local communities and individuals, focusing on outcomes, not inputs – co-constructing services between commissioners, providers and users; and second, to ensure regional interests in England have the democratic tools and resources to shape their own futures just as we have seen the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales do with increasing confidence.
And we need to address the yawning governance gap we are witnessing as a result of atomised public services. Be it in academies or clinical commissioning groups, time and time again, we have seen failure in financial management and governance when these newly reformed structures should be in the business of increasing public confidence not eroding it.
As public service leaders we know we will be tested and held to account by local communities and that there are some tough challenges on the road ahead. It’s also time that we started to challenge Westminster and Whitehall to raise their eyes from May 2015 and start the tough job of planning for the medium term, not just the next term.