“From global heating to demographic change to entrenching social inequalities, a growing cast of wicked issues demands bold new policy agendas stretching years if not decades into the future. Sudden ‘black swan’ shocks from climate emergencies to global pandemics demand the opposite: immediate, game-changing adaptation. Fiscal retrenchment in recent years has reduced the capacity of many nation-states to respond to either challenge while declining trust in governments and public organisations now sets citizens at odds with the institutions designed to serve them.” (French et al. 2023)
To these challenges we can add a further threat: the failure of a generation New Public Management reforms – from marketisation to contractualism to results-based performance management – to improve valued outcomes on anything approaching a consistent basis. There is now widespread acknowledgement that the rationalistic and transactional design principles which underpin this public service reform orthodoxy sit awkwardly with the inherently relational nature of value creation in public service.
In academia and across civil society we find increasing pressure for a radical change in the form and function of government and public service. Calls for a ‘relational turn’ in the trajectory of public service reform are echoed in demands for services to be local and community-based rather than distant and centralised, bespoke to individuals rather than universalist, staffed in the main by generalists rather than specialists, and capable of harnessing complexity rather than seeking merely to simplify matters.
Relational approaches to public services raise new questions such as:
- How can we value and nurture the relational core of public service in increasingly challenging times?
- How can we learn, adapt and innovate, whether from success or failure? What theoretical perspectives best support the design/re-design of organisations and collaborations to support improvements in valued outcomes?
- What is the future role of outcome-based contracting and performance management in a relational context?
- Can mechanisms like Payment-by-Results, Social Impact Bonds, Outcomes Funds or other ‘transactional’ approaches support a relational approach to public service reform?
- How can the lessons of ‘exemplar’ relational services, e.g. Buurtzorg neighbourhood care, inform contemporary practice?
- How can measuring and measurement support relational public service?
- What role do information systems and data have in supporting the development of relational approaches?
- How should regimes of accountability, inspection and scrutiny be configured for relational public services?
- How do stakeholders innovate their relations and relationships in specific contexts, and with what effect?
- What research relationships and methodologies fit the analysis of relational public services?
- What role does public engagement and deliberation have in the innovation of public services and new forms of relations between governance, management and delivery of public services?
- How can new methods such as Human Learning Systems and Learning Partnering recognize and ameliorate problems in relationships?
- What role can institutions like Universities play in supporting innovations, brokering partnerships or learning in relationships (as engaged scholars) in areas as diverse as the co-production of the care of older people, community development to climate change?
We invite practitioners, academics and interested observers to join us this June 14/15 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK to explore where this relational turn might lead us, and how it might confront growing challenges in public finances. Our four conference streams will explore insights and innovations from policy, practice and academia to inform a dynamic conversation about the future of public service.