From Mitt Romney to David Cameron, politicians across the developed world have made the size of the state the defining political issue of our times. But what matters more is what we want government to do for us.
In other words, understanding the future of local government means reaching beyond structural reform and developing a clearer understanding of what citizens want and need. Our new paper Anticipating the Future Citizen offers some speculation about how public attitudes might change by the end of the parliament.
We detect a real desire from the public sector to reshape the citizen-state relationship, from "something for something" approaches to welfare in Westminster to behaviour change schemes in Swindon and neighbourhood service delivery in Newcastle. There is also an openness from the public themselves to re-examine this relationship.
The English remain attached to the NHS and notions of fairness, but we are split down the middle on whether we want to be a collectivist or individualistic society. Our attitudes to welfare are hardening, but we are increasingly prepared to make a personal contribution to save services that we value, such as local libraries.
We used an analysis of opinion polls and trends to understand what might evolve from this mix of contradictory attitudes.
We know what drives customer satisfaction with public services and we do not expect that to change: the public wants fairness and to be treated well, but once they have those things they also value personalisation and local accountability. It is less certain whether we will become a more individualistic or cohesive society in future, and more active or passive citizens.
Looking at the data, we came up with four key clusters of citizen that might emerge by 2015:
• Safety net citizens will be collectively-minded but passive. They will continue to want a strong safety net for the "deserving poor" but may not expect much else. It seems likely that they will expect central government to provide the safety net, pushing councils back into doing better basics such as street scene and waste services.
• Reclusives will be passive individualists. Battered by the cuts and the country's poor economic performance, they will retreat behind their front doors and focus on themselves and their families. Wealthy reclusives may increasingly buy health and education from the private sector, weakening the social consensus in favour of high quality public services.
• Shopping listers are active individualists, fighting for the biggest possible slice of a declining public sector pie. If this group dominates a local area, they will probably create fractious community politics as different interest groups get their representatives elected to demand a better deal.
• New mutualists are likely to be a small group of very active and collectively minded social activists. They are likely to adopt schemes like time banking and collaborative consumption to help their communities weather the cuts. This group will not have reached critical mass but 2015, but by then we will have a pretty good idea if groups such as the Empty Shops Network are the future.
What can councils do to prepare and perhaps even influence this future? The first goal must be to handle cuts very carefully to ensure they do not result in a culture of grievance or apathy that will encourage reclusives and shopping listers.
A second might be to encourage the new mutualists with investment, assets and other kinds of support. Local government should also consider a campaign to create a political constituency for localism among the public, reducing the risk that cuts will be seen to endanger fairness, triggering a flight back to Whitehall.
There are good futures to be had, but they must be fought for.
This blog is based on the report Anticipating the Future Citizen
Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network and Graeme Walker is a local government specialist at PA Consulting Group.
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