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Friday, 16 November 2012

The Relational State

IPPR have published a booklet, 'The relational state: How recognising the importance of human relationships could revolutionise the role of the state.' The aim of this collection of essays is to examine the concept of the 'relational state', claiming that this is a new perspective on the role of public services.

The starting point for these ideas is dissatisfaction with the 'New Public Management' (NPM) model that dominated New Labour thinking, driven by targets and markets.

"A ‘targets and terror’ approach can be effective in addressing terrible performance, but it is poorly suited to supporting excellence, because it hampers flexible responses to local demand and constrains innovation and creativity. Command and control techniques have also led to the growth of expansive monitoring, inspection and auditing processes, which are a drain on time and money."


This approach was far less prevalent in Scotland, but elements of it have crept into management thinking. In this booklet some authors argue that the edges need to be smoothed off NPM and its core methods redirected towards different, more relational, goals. Others mount the case for more fundamental change, affecting both the aims and practices of public services and the state. However, there is a consensus on the need for human relationships to be given greater priority as a goal of policy and in the design and operation of public services, which challenges a strict adherence to egalitarian goals and state-led agency above all others.


Public service reform in Scotland is obsessed with outcomes. There are limitations to this approach as well;

“Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the focus on delivering measurable outcomes has neglected the importance of human relationships. It risks reducing the complexity and texture of human experience to a simple number, leading to policies and services that do not address the core of a problem. Targeting only the outcome forgets that the way people are treated matters too – it underplays the role of relationships in improving people’s lives. A purely outcomes-focused mode also involves certain people – invariably elites of various forms – deciding for others what they should choose to value.”


The relational state inevitably puts a focus on localism and the booklet does not duck the tension between equality and localism. On the one hand, devolving power and responsibility to local authorities, service providers, frontline professionals or citizen-users is seen as necessary to create the conditions for relational activity. On the other hand, this rubs up against the countervailing instinct to seek to advance more equal outcomes or opportunities of various kinds. Greater scope for variation and contingency opens up the risk of ‘postcode lotteries’ and a ‘race to the bottom’.


I suspect to many public service staff the ‘relational state’ will sound very woolly with the risk that it will lead to a patchwork of service delivery more akin to the 19th Century before local government. It also assumes that service users all want this level of engagement with all services. As one of the authors puts it;

“This turns on a basic question of whether voters want a government that tries to solve their problems for them, or one which gives them power over their own lives. Does the public want outcomes delivered for them or space in which to foster the relationships that matter to them?”


I suspect the answer is that they want both, but not for every service. In some services there is a strong case for co-production, in others it is simply an issue of service delivery. Relational practice is also already present in some services.


While I found much to disagree with in this booklet, it is a useful contribution to the debate around public service reform in Scotland. Parts also chime with UNISON Scotland’s approach to reform based on building services from the bottom up. As the authors admit, this book marks the beginning of a debate, not the end.



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