IPPR North’s recent publication Public Sector Paradox draws together some conclusions from the Commission on Public Sector Reform in the North East. These centre on ways out of what they believe is a paradox: public services in the region are working well but the North East is not closing the inequality gap on the rest of the country. (The same pattern could be said to pertain to the arts in the region and participation levels.) The Commission puts forward a number of striking (and pithily expressed) theories, such as that public services ‘may be hitting targets but missing the point’ and need more local definition and freedom from Whitehall centralism.
To mark the publication and to discuss what the ‘inevitable’ (it's a quote, yes, but I also think we need to emphasise the constructed quality of the inevitablity) public sector cuts will mean to the North East and how to respond, IPPR and the RSA organised a conference today at St James Park in Newcastle. (No, I didn’t see anyone putting ‘sportsdirect.com’ signs up.) Speakers included Sir George Russell, who chaired the Commission, Matthew Taylor from the RSA, John Tommany for Newcastle University and Deborah Jenkins, one of the founders of Common Purpose.
There was much talk of leadership – without it ever being defined and without who it might refer to being narrowed down much. The spectre of the Great Man model was behind a lot that was said. The idea of a more networked leadership model, which allowed for a greater diversity of voices, seems an important one to explore – though challenging to many orthodoxies.
The North East is clearly vulnerable to cuts in public sector spending, given our relative dependence on government funding. (I was reacting strongly against this word during the day, but struggle to avoid it. It suggests government funding is a kind of drug we need to be weaned off, rather than a positive investment with a particular kind of return on investment. Do people talk about dependency on financiers? I guess so.) But one possible reason for the seeming paradox was given by John Tomanny in an ironic quite: it’s the economy, stupid.
Matthew Taylor suggested a scarily believable nightmare scenario for the North East, where a retrenchment into the so-called essentials leads to the region becoming less attractive to talent and investment, leading to even less achievement and so on. You might call this the ‘It’s Grim Up North Again’ scenario. (My phrase, not Matthew’s, in case anyone wants to take offence.) He suggested turning the potential weakness into a strength by becoming a centre of excellence in public sector productivity and innovation, by adopting an Innovation Charter, clusters of new thinking and creating international links rather than regional or national ones. (And yes, Matthew, as you guessed, we are doing some of that already, but not boldly or quickly enough.)
The biggest barrier to this is probably what was described as the first pre-condition for innovation: a sense of otherwise-unavoidable-crisis-or-disastrous-problem. I was reminded of something I’d read in the Guardian this morning, where Ben Bradshaw accuses the arts sector of ‘sleepwalking’ towards a difficult future (under a different government than his own oddly enough.) Certainly in some of the cultural sector broadly there is a kind of complacency disguised as either fatalism or oppositional critique that worries me. There is not, it seems, yet what the change specialists call ‘a burning platform’. I have to think it’s the optimist in me that can smell burning, not the fatalist. (I’m optimistic we can find great new ways of working – to engage more than 1 in 10 adults on a very regular basis, for instance - but only once we realise some of our old and current ways are part of an urgent and damaging problem. I think it's about more than the next election too.)
The question I personally came away with was this: how do I use my last few months as a North East leader-with-job-title to make sure I can still play my part – in fact even build my part in some ways – in the future? I’m thinking on it, believe me, but your answers on a postcard welcome.