Forward Thinking
4 August, 2005

Warren Hatter, Head of Research, NLGN
Local Government Chronicle

People take good public services for granted. And so they should. But this poses a problem for people in the policy world when we see investment rise and delivery improve, while polling-based levels of satisfaction with services stubbornly stay put or even decline. In these circumstances, how can those who successfully modernise public services ever get the credit they deserve?

Much of the focus since 7 July has correctly been on identifying how and why such terrible events took place. Yet at the same time, the widely acknowledged efficient response of public services could actually be a turning point for modernisers. A combination of factors – not least the chaotic way in which foot and mouth was dealt with and the increased risk of terrorist attack following 9/11 – brought a new approach to emergency planning. And on the day, this brought out the best in a wide range of public services in and around London.

Modernisers might also find some comfort in the fact that their efforts have finally been recognised by national media. The traditional response to the way the emergency services cope with a disaster has been to applaud “our brave doctors and nurses”, and the like. In the wake of last month’s events however, different language was used. The Daily Mail for example, that barometer of ‘middle England’, praised “our magnificent emergency services”.

Implicitly, it is public service managers who are being praised. It was not the paramedics and PCs who created the Strategic Emergency Plan for London that they so expertly executed. It was the managers: the very same people who tend to attract the ire of those who want to believe that modernisation and public service reform is a sham. This may not put an end to headlines referring to “wasteful penpushers”, but it is surely progress of a sort.

Nevertheless, we might have expected politicians and media commentators to make more capital out of the consensus emerging about the evident quality of public services in light of an emergency. Nobody would want to stand accused of making party political capital from the bombings, but the response has surely created the space for comments that challenge entrenched and widely held negative views. This is why we put so much investment and effort into modernising services. It is also why we pay our taxes and why we expect good public services.

Indeed, now is no time to be bashful. Let us be clear that the immediate response to the bombings illustrates how much things have changed for the better during the past few years. And let those of us who advocate localism say that it shows conclusively how local and regional services can be both joined up and world class in their delivery. In bad times, as in good, let us give credit where credit is due.