As the welfare state turns 70, we celebrate those who make it work, despite eight years of government austerity
There will be no shortage of events to mark the 70th birthday of the NHS in July. But another 70th, in many ways just as significant, passed last Sunday with little or no acknowledgment. Few will have paused to reflect on the 1948 National Assistance Act, never mind raise a glass to it.
The act was a key pillar of the welfare state structure that still forms the framework of UK public services. It swept away the Elizabethan poor law that for 350 years had made local parishes responsible for the destitute and was symbolised by the hated workhouse. The act legislated “to make provision in lieu thereof for the assistance of persons in need by the National Assistance Board and by local authorities”.
As well as establishing the basis of the modern social security system, the act – given royal assent on 13 May 1948 – mandated local councils to provide housing for older and disabled people, take responsibility for the wellbeing of those with physical disabilities and undertake registration and inspection of care homes.
The act also made social care means-tested in contrast to NHS care, today still largely free to the individual at point of need, which is the reason politicians continue to struggle to integrate the two halves of the care system. But that’s another story.
Overall, the 1948 welfare state settlement has served us remarkably well. Despite the ravages of eight years of austerity, with local government the most ravaged sector of all, there remains much to be proud of in our public services.
And the 2018 Guardian Public Service Awards, supported by EY, and launched today, provide the ideal platform to remember and celebrate that.
The awards, initiated in 2004, showcase best practice in planning, commissioning and delivery of services across the UK. Entry is largely for teams – with a new category this year for team diversity and inclusion – but there is also an award for the individual public servant of the year, decided by a readers’ vote.
Last year’s overall winner, Hertfordshire county council’s family safeguarding service, exemplifies the qualities that the awards seek to highlight.
A complete overhaul of child protection work in the county, taking multi-professional services direct to families in their homes, succeeded in halving the time at-risk children spent in care, improving their school attendance by almost 40% and reducing police callouts to domestic abuse incidents by two-thirds.
Sue Williams, Hertfordshire’s director of family safeguarding, says winning triggered huge interest in the approach: it felt like every other children’s services authority suddenly wanted to visit to learn what had been done, and how, and the council even had a letter of congratulation from the children’s minister.
“It made everybody even more motivated than they were before to show this different way of working and the difference it can make to families,” Williams says.
“I think it gave an extra boost to our performance because people worked even harder to show the impact they could have by engaging families differently.”
‘It’s an important message about what can be achieved by people with a disability.’ Photograph: Mark Waugh for the Guardian
Stephen Smith, voted last year’s public servant of the year by readers for his work over 25 years campaigning for better support for people with learning disabilities in Lancashire, has been similarly overwhelmed. “It has been an important message about people who have a learning disability and what can be achieved,” says Smith, who is himself disabled.
As these and other past winners point out, the awards provide an opportunity not just for acclaim, but also for reflection and debate on what produces better outcomes for people who receive services.
An award category for service transformation is reintroduced this year. It’s a strong term, but one often used loosely. What it really means and how to set about achieving it is being explored at a conference next week organised by the Public Service Transformation Academy, which runs the Cabinet Office’s programme for transforming public services.
In a report to be published at the conference, the academy identifies cultural issues within – and, critically, between – public agencies as both the major enablers of success and the major barriers to it.
“Ultimately, we need to reconnect [professionals] with a true role of public services,” the report concludes. “This might include what we’ve coined ‘public service disobedience’ – standing up against what you know to be wrong and counter-productive, even at personal cost.”
Looking back on all the winners of the Guardian Public Services Awards over the past 14 years, through austerity and rather better times, an element of disobedience may well be a common thread. If defined as defying convention, it certainly is.
• David Brindle is the Guardian’s public services editor. Additional reporting by Emma Sheppard
How to enter
Entries are open for The Guardian Public Service Awards 2018, supported by EY. The awards aim to showcase the most innovative approaches to delivering public services and are open to teams in the public, private and voluntary sectors. This year’s 10 categories are:
• Digital and technology
• Diversity and inclusion (sponsored by Audeliss)
•Health and wellbeing
•Learning and development
•Recruitment and HR (sponsored by PPMA)
• Leadership excellence.
The closing date for entries is 13 July. Entries will be judged by respected leaders in their field, and the winners will be announced at an event in a central London venue in November.
Nominations are also open today for public servant of the year, sponsored by EY. Members of the public will be able to vote for the shortlisted candidates from September.
For more details and how to enter go to theguardian.com/society/series/guardian-public-service-awards-2018.