We need to close the social aspiration gap, says Matthew Taylor.

There is a gap in Britain’s future and it looks like it’s getting bigger. It separates the hopes we have for the future and the kind of nation in which we want to live from the trajectory on which current modes of thinking and behaviour have set us. Of all the various imperatives we set for public service reform, it is closing this “social aspiration gap” which is ultimately the most important.

If tomorrow’s lives are to be better than today’s, then we will need a citizenry which is, in aggregate, more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social. More engaged because people need to be more thoughtful about, and to take more responsibility for, the choices decision-makers face at every level from the global to the local. Our leading pollster, Ben Page from Ipsos MORI, is fond of saying that the British people have very clear opinions about what they want politicians to deliver “Swedish welfare on American tax rates”. Page also reports that most people think more decisions should be devolved to the local level, while at the same time opposing the idea that public service entitlements – even in service areas like access to parks and leisure facilities – should vary depending on where a person lives.

Arguably fiscal deficits are, in part, a reflection of the difficulty modern politicians have with telling us we can’t have our cake and eat it too. But having adopted the false metaphor of consumerism, politicians have to pretend that the voter, like the customer, is always right. We demand that politicians tell us the truth and our trust in them falls ever lower; meanwhile the politicians suppress their desire to emulate Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men and snarl back: “you can’t handle the truth!” On issue after issue, we say we want one thing – environmental sustainability, less inequality, more house building, better care for older people – while rejecting the difficult policy decisions and personal sacrifices required to meet these goals.

No wonder the last General Election involved all three leaders maintaining the demonstrable fiction that the deepest cuts in public spending in generations could somehow be accomplished without damaging any front line services. Now, as we face austerity in the short to medium term and rising demands in the longer term, we have somehow to engage the public with the simple truth that public services cannot succeed unless users and citizens recognise their own role in helping those services do more with less.

This is one reason why a better future demands a more resourceful population. In terms of the economy, this means a workforce which is more entrepreneurial, creative and flexible. But public services too need citizens who are better at taking the initiative. The most important determinant of a child’s success at school is not the social class of their parents, but whether the parents support their child’s learning. The prognosis facing a patient will often depend on whether they act on medical advice and take steps to improve their lifestyle. It is inconceivable that future pensioners will maintain a reasonable standard of living in retirement unless many more of us start to save a great deal more. And, as well as looking after ourselves, we need to look after each other. From social care to safe streets, the state’s role cannot be as guarantor of the good life but primarily as overseer, supporter and backstop for the efforts of civil society. Yet despite innumerable initiatives and exhortations, organised volunteering levels remain modest, while symptoms of weakening social bonds such as isolation, distrust and loneliness are on the rise.

Although its collective instinct is to pander to public prejudice rather than challenge, the political class is not unaware of the social aspiration gap. Tony Blair’s strategy unit was the first to undertake a study of what was rather sinisterly called “behaviour change”: an examination of how to encourage more responsible actions without relying only on laws and taxes. David Cameron has continued this interest – reflected, for example, in his enthusiasm for “nudging”, a label which covers various initiatives drawing on the insights of behavioural economics and social psychology. Indeed, Cameron’s lonely crusade for a “Big Society” is itself recognition of the need to move from a government-centric to a citizen-centric model of social progress.

The Big Society was a good diagnosis, but has failed as a plan of action. This is partly down to some pretty disastrous messaging. By implying that the Big Society was something that the Conservatives were going to build as soon as they got into power, Cameron’s team managed both to annoy those who had been trying to make society bigger for years, while failing to recognise that public sector austerity would almost certainly mean that – according to almost all measures – over the next few years society will actually get smaller.

The lack of realism may have been linked to the Conservatives’ fondness for the empirically-baseless belief that civil society is stronger in countries where the state is weaker. Indeed, if there is a correlation between the scale of public entitlements and levels of civic engagement, it is almost certainly positive.

But while the Right is wrong that state action necessarily crowds out civic action, the Left has failed to grasp just how difficult it is for the state, especially the national state, to provide a platform for public empowerment. So far, so pessimistic: the RSA has called for public services to be judged by whether they are socially productive, that is to say whether they help people better meet their own and each other’s needs. Is this in any way realistic?

Fortunately, there is on our doorstep, literally, an example of a service which has gone from being delivered to largely passive recipients to one which is co-produced with an active and responsible public. The example is refuse collection, in which a broadly observed collective commitment to recycling allied with a new deal between households and councils means most of us spend as much time managing our rubbish as the local authority.

Whether we use the language of closing the social aspiration gap, changing behaviour or building a Big Society, the common insight is that a core objective of public policy must be to help people align current behaviours with future challenges and hopes. Yet this insight seems hardly to have penetrated the Whitehall departments that oversee the major frontline public services.

Creating a handful of free schools may empower a few parents (at least until they hand over the running of the school to some chain or another), but it does little to address the fundamental need to re-imagine schools (and colleges) not as exam factories but as hubs for the creation of aspirational cultures of learning in our communities. An RSA project in Peterborough has explored the scope for aspects of the school curriculum to be co-created and co-produced by schools and organisations in the wider community. It is time-consuming work which involves overcoming the major cultural barriers that have grown up between schools and civil society, but it offers the prospect of making children’s education the business of the whole city, not just its educational professionals.

Despite the addition of various accountability mechanisms bolted on to give some cover to the Liberals Democrats, the Coalition’s health reforms in essence represent a major shift of power to doctors. The impact will vary from place to place, but the danger is that the medical model of health will once again win out. Those developing a health strategy which focuses only on apportioning NHS treatment will increasingly feel like a six foot man trying to cover himself with a five foot blanket. Instead, we need an approach which starts from understanding the foundations of well-being and seeks to build the conditions, capacities and responsibilities which foster healthier living and develop a new civic economy of care.

No one sensible pretends this stuff is easy. Developing new services which help limited resources stretch further by finding new ways to engage citizens requires an in-depth process of inquiry, co-design, innovation and prototyping. This is the mission of a range of organisations (Young Foundation, Big Lottery Fund, RSA, NESTA) who are, in the parlance of the trade, more act tank than think tank. The best service charities too are seeing austerity as a prompt for tough questions about whether their models are doing more than providing sticking plaster solutions. But moving from a great initiative which relies on the enthusiasm of its founders into something which has a sustainable business model continues to be the toughest step. For every lauded success, like Southwark Circles of Care or Turning Point’s Connected Care scheme, there will be many well-intentioned failures. But this is all the more reason why this direction of travel should be strongly endorsed, and supported by senior politicians and officials.

New Labour had the right intentions, but was hamstrung by its statist instincts. David Cameron has the correct diagnosis, but is unable or unwilling to apply it to the core business of government. The need to re-imagine and re-design public services so that relationships and reciprocity are as important as organising principles as bureaucracy and market mechanisms can be acknowledged by both Left and Right. But until we recognise that this is indeed the biggest challenge and the biggest prize, then the gap between what people want and what is likely to happen will just keep on growing.

This essay appears in The next ten years published by Reform.