The future for public services

by Gideon Skinner
State of the Nation

Has the pandemic affected what we want from the state?

The pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends facing public services, which saw pressures after years of austerity, ongoing challenges around productivity, an ageing population, the impact of Brexit, and more. Funding is the first of these, where even before COVID-19, public opinion was already swinging in favour of more spending on public services. In the eyes of the public, funding remains the biggest challenge facing public services in responding to the coronavirus, while nearly half think the quality of public services will suffer because of the pandemic.1

This is a debate still to be resolved within Government. On the one hand, it is quite prepared to spend where necessary, with the announcement of £4bn to upgrade local infrastructure and a multibillion-pound increase in annual defence spending over the next four years, to say nothing of the historic amounts spent to deal with the pandemic. But on the other, over a million of public sector workers will see their pay frozen next year and according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, £10bn has been cut from departments’ non-COVID-19 (core) budgets. Given the difficult decisions that still need to be resolved, we may see a growing appetite for involving the public in more of these discussions, such as in our work with the public and King’s College London on the issue of how to allocate NHS resources in the second wave of COVID-19 infections.2 One of the silver linings of the pandemic is a hope that community spirit will be boosted, and public services may be able to harness this to increase citizen engagement in decision-making.3 

We may see a growing appetite for involving the public more

Person using mobile device to contact public services

The coronavirus has forced a focus on the need for resilience

Another accelerating trend is digital transformation. Half of Britons think they will be using technology more to contact public services as a result of the pandemic. However, this may increase concern about how ‘digital by default’ could exacerbate the digital divide – the middle classes are far more likely to say their use of technology will increase than those in NRS-defined social classes ‘DE’.4 There are also some signs that the public has become slightly more open to the idea of data sharing within government than six years ago, although many are still split over privacy concerns.

The coronavirus has forced a focus on the need for resilience. Funding is crucial to this, but resilience is not just about money, and we may see a response in more collaborative ways of working across the public, private, and voluntary sectors. Resilience applies to people too, and it’s likely that public services will need to pay more attention to wellbeing – the health impacts of the pandemic go well beyond the immediate physical effects of the virus itself. We are seeing substantial numbers of people reporting they are feeling more anxious or lonely, putting off seeking medical advice for other conditions, and drinking more.5

The public hasn’t forgotten about the big issues facing the country before the coronavirus struck

For public services, this also means paying attention to the wellbeing of their staff. Pulling together to deal with one overriding public health priority may have had a motivating effect in the short term, but just like the private sector, public sector workers will also be dealing with challenges of remote working,6 restrictions on travel, and doubts about city life – all the while dealing with implications for recruitment from Brexit.

The public hasn’t forgotten about the big issues facing the country before the virus struck either. Pessimism about the chances of getting a good Brexit deal continues (if not quite as low as it was in 2019)7, and this is something that will affect public services as well as business. Even among leave voters there is little appetite for cutting back regulations in key areas such as work, environmental and safety standards and consumer protections,8 so regulators in particular will need to prepare for this. The public also wants a ‘green’ economic recovery post-COVID-19, with investing in energy efficiency, renewables, cleaner transport options, and actions against pollution all priorities for local areas.9

Wind turbines for renewable energy near Hull

There is confidence in public services to adapt to changes that coronavirus brings

The levelling-up agenda remains crucial, with people in the north of England, east Midlands, south-west and Wales in particular feeling underserved in comparison with the rest of the country, and COVID-19 has also accelerated questions about devolution. As discussed further here. Britons want public services to focus on jobs, and particularly opportunities for young people, as and when the country moves into the recovery phase. Although the pandemic still tops our Issues Index, we’ve also seen big rises in concern about the economy and unemployment, while professional footballer Marcus Rashford’s recent campaign about school meals has brought poverty and inequality back into the limelight.10

There are two pieces of good news for public services. Firstly, the public are looking for the state to take the lead (as we saw on behaviours around masks, for example).11 This was a trend we were already seeing before COVID-19, with the pendulum of public opinion moving towards a bigger state in response to austerity. But there are signs this has been reinforced by the pandemic, with strong support for many of the decisive actions that only government could take.

Secondly, despite the challenges, there is confidence in public services to adapt to changes that coronavirus brings. The upside of having to make the most of limited resources to come up with new ways of responding to the pandemic is that there may be more openness towards risk-taking and experimentation in the future.

The pandemic has brought many hardships but has shown how public services can deliver in an emergency. Necessity has provided a common purpose, more flexible working, new collaborations and openness to innovation. But a crisis-footing is not sustainable in the long run and, despite funding pressures, public services’ remit covers much more than just the coronavirus. Managing the transition to something nearer normality and learning the lessons of delivery in the face of adversity will be vital for public service leaders – and maybe, having a real conversation about what the British want from the state in 2021 and beyond.

Gideon Skinner

Gideon Skinner

Head of Political Research