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Christian Bason

Profound reforms needed in the public sector

By May 14th 2012

This blog has previously been published in the Danish magazine Monday Morning.

It is in relation to the citizen that the need for public sector reform is greatest. Despite the public sector’s ardent willingness to adapt, implementing these ‘profound reforms’ remains problematic.

In 2009, when the financial crisis appeared to be at its peak, I wrote a column for the Danish weekly, Mandag Morgen. In it, I argued that it was necessary for the public sector to take action and thereby demonstrate how important the public sector is to our economy when the private financial markets fail. The public sector alone was in a position to provide bailout packages to the banks, acquire crisis-hit companies and implement more sensible regulation of the financial sector.

At the time I wrote that the public sector was part of the solution. Today, however, it increasingly appears as if the public sector is part of the problem.

The most significant welfare areas – both in Denmark and in the countries with which we compare ourselves – require things to be done very differently. By this I mean that reducing expenditure in certain areas by a few percentage points or prioritising slightly more rigorously is not enough. On the contrary, what’s needed is a fundamental transformation of what we perceive to be public service. One could call this ‘profound reform’.

Profound reform is about ascertaining a new set of principles for defining public service and using these principles to redefine organisations,  projects and processes. An essential aspect of profound reform is that its guiding principles can emerge from many sources, for example internally within public organisations, in not-for-profit organisations and NGOs, in the private sector, or among the citizens themselves.

The consequences of profound reform are barrier-breaking for public sector managers and their employees, since the profound reform necessitates a public sector that:

- Shows empathy for the individual citizen, family and local community. It is thus based on greater sympathy for the citizen than for the system.

- Builds on the principle that the individual is an expert in his or her own life, and thus challenges professional competencies/‘professionalism’.

- Takes as its starting point people’s and groups’ actual behaviours and needs as opposed to classic economic or professional considerations.

- Focuses on the long-term social and economic effects on the individual and community instead of on short-term budget optimisation.

- Organises efforts for citizens in a way that focuses on their service experience as opposed to on public sector organisation.

There are in fact enough good examples of profound, innovative reform if one looks at it from an international perspective. Whichever welfare area comes under focus, radically more effective and significantly less expensive models – compared to those familiar to Denmark – do exist.

As an example, both the US and Australia have found better and cheaper ways of helping vulnerable children and young people while avoiding the expense of forcible removals by adopting a health-oriented family approach whereby families help other families. Also, in both the UK and the US, efforts to support people with learning disabilities have been made more effective through individual budgets, ensuring a better and more efficient use of public resources. Moreover, as has now become well known, Fredericia Municipality in Jutlland has massively improved and increased the effectiveness of its home care efforts by systemising daily rehabilitation.

Despite the increasing demand, however, profound reform remains a rarity in the Danish context. This is because the problem lies in the fact that genuine profound reform requires the public system – the public sector architecture – to change in equally profound ways.

In all of the the above-mentioned examples the relationship between citizens and the public sector has changed fundamentally:

- In terms of families, efforts have been made to take advantage of the unique strengths exhibited by diverging families who have experienced – and managed to overcome – tough challenges. They are therefore able to help other families in crisis. This represents a complete shift away from perceiving the families as the problem, towards accepting their ability to provide the solutions if given partners who understand how to help them on their way.

- With regards to people with learning disabilities, the reforms are evidence of how even the most intellectually vulnerable are better able to manage their own money than professional social workers and therapists.

- In terms of home care in Denmark, it has been acknowledged that most elderly people actually prefer to live the life they have always lived as opposed to one characterised by home care dependency. It does, however, require assistance to enable individuals to regain their physical and mental strength.

In light of the reforms currently being announced at the highest level, there is little doubt that people want radically new ideas on how to structure our public services.

The pertinent question is whether our public sector leaders and their employees have the imagination and determination to push through the kinds of profound reforms that are in fact needed. 

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