Trusts and contracts By Andrew Coulson The Policy Press 318 pages £16.99

This book was inspired by the work of the late Kieron Walsh. It is described as a labour of love and is an expression of the strongly held views of the 16 contributors on the future nature of relationships in the public services.

It is aimed at those who seek to make, or have already made, their career in public service and invites them to analyse the best means toward optimisation of service provision.

Should we, ask the authors, continue to seek to resolve disputes by legalistic, contract-based methods of ensuring best practice, or should we place our 'trust' (and taxpayers' money) in less formal mechanisms?

Should we perhaps do better to rely on rewarding good performance with the promise of developing relationships, while penalising non-compliance with withdrawal of co-operation or the opportunity for further contractual involvement?

Contract or trust? To this reviewer, a lawyer, the answer would at first sight appear only too obvious and the idea of lawyer-free dispute resolution hopelessly Utopian. The book has, however, made something of a convert.

But seriously, could it work? Well, it seems to elsewhere. Reliance on ultra-specific contractual provision and remorseless use of legal process to resolve disputes between, for example, contractors and public sector bodies seems to be an Anglo-American obsession.

The irony is that resolving disputes via litigious or related procedures seems too often to result in great expense, unsatisfactory outcomes and the destruction of potentially useful relationships. On the other hand, investment of trust, where deserved, genuinely rewards proper performance, while its withdrawal effectively penalises the recalcitrant.

The power of empathy versus formalised position-taking is illustrated by an analysis of the chair/chief executive relationship in the NHS. Many such relationships have, as we know, foundered. One factor seems to be the considerable overlap of roles. However, where they have endured, a consistent thread is that the protagonists simply trust and like each other.

Whither public service? We have passed through the eras of paternalistic provision and market-driven notions. Neither have wholly satisfied. Are we now genuinely looking forward to a middle or 'third' way?

The conclusion drawn is that certain services properly remain in the public domain. However, to ensure their credibility in the eyes of an increasingly consumerist society these services must be correctly focused, and of appropriate quality.

This, it is reasoned, is best achieved by genuine dialogue between provider and user in order to justify the trust needed to be placed in the service, and ultimately in government.

An interesting and thought-provoking read. I commend it.

Howard Jacks

Solicitor, Mills and Reeve, Birmingham

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