Looking back, looking forward: Peter Housden on UK public services

After four decades in UK public services, Peter Housden sees the best as yet to come.

“As I stepped down as permanent secretary in Scotland after five great years, I had a strong sense of the unfulfilled potential of public services in the UK – the scope for real improvements in outcomes for people and the chance to make some decisive inroads into the long tails of inequality in our society,” he says. “I have been lucky to have the chance to remain involved in consultancy and leadership development work in the UK and in Ireland, but wanted to enter this new phase with a clearer set of understandings about how we have come this far and the journey to come.”

This is the background to Housden’s take on the UK approach to public services – both today and tomorrow.

Maybe it’s down to his training as a teacher – the urge to guide and influence still remains strong – but he puts it down to having a sense that his work isn’t yet done. “Like lots of people I stumbled into public service,” he admits. “I had a broad sense of wanting the country to be a better place and, as I went on, I found I got a sharper definition about how to make the most impact and where to do it. And I came out more determined than ever, more motivated than ever, to engender the kind of debate and change we need.”

For Housden a key part of the debate centres on how the country’s public services can evolve to meet new conditions and take advantage of new opportunities. “Huge advances have been made but we should listen closely to the levels of practitioner disquiet out there. You hear again and again from serious, successful and focused leaders that they are tearing their hair out about the counter-productive stances and misunderstandings that governments and their agencies can be prey to.  I want to understand their frustration and see if stronger bridges can be made between practitioners and governments, national and local.”

Digging deeper

Housden has seen public services from an unusually wide range of angles.  He moved from teaching into educational administration and rose to become Chief Executive of Nottinghamshire County Council – a role he held for seven years – before joining the civil service as director-deneral for Schools in 2001. He then moved on to be permanent secretary for the Office of the Deputy Minister in October 2005 and set up the Department for Communities and Local Government in June 2006 before moving to Scotland in 2010 and leading the civil service there through the independence referendum and beyond.

For Housden, the rich tapestry of public service demands a deeper analysis then we are used to. “A shallow and dangerous consensus emerged in the mainstream newspapers and in the major parties more than 20 years ago,” he says. “It hangs like a fog over practitioners in the field. Subscribers to the consensus are persuaded that public services are a perennial problem which can only handled through crude forms of performance management, structural reform and influxes of new leadership.  We can do better than that.”

He argues that central policy makers and those responsible for delivery have a particular responsibility to take a view, rooted in engagement at the front line and an understanding of the range of improvement strategies capable of effecting sustainable, system-wide change.

“Our knowledge of what works has never been higher,” he points out. Rethinking Public Services seeks to understand why we don’t apply it.  I go on to explore what a new model might look like and how it might come into being.  The practice of British governments over 30 years has been to apply market models and consumer thinking to relational public services backed by crude forms of performance management and gladiatorial politics where secretaries of state take up arms against public service practitioners.  These stances have their moments – when services have lost sight of those they serve and are failing – but they are no way to run an army. They persist because they fit well with ministerial desires for profile, with Whitehall’s centralist default and the media’s demand for drama and scapegoats.”

Partners in power

He goes on to say that policymakers would be better served by adjusting their focus and considering the reality of what is happening on the frontline. “It’s all very well becoming cross about this and looking for an answer in a ‘re-imagination of the state’,” he explains. “But a better place to start is what actually happens on the ground in public services, at the point of delivery. What we see is a process of co-creation – where practitioners and those receiving their help pool their resources of knowledge, understanding, skills and resilience to craft a way ahead.”

Housden believes that the family and community and voluntary services are key contributors to these processes of co-production.  “There is rarely any exact science to this,” he admits. “All our general understandings about the teaching of reading, for example, have to be shaped, combined and crafted to match the needs of each children in all their individuality and the settings in which they live. Doctors these days treat people rather than respond to symptoms. The Troubled Families programme, for example, is about relationships and creating a sense of warmth, purpose and achievement in the lives of the people to whom they reach out.”

He is also keen to stress that the picture is far from bleak. “A paradigm of public service reform that builds on these realities looks very different to current regimes but it won’t have to go far to find rich sources of inspiration,” he says. “Excellent practice abounds in all of the key services.  There are enormously talented leaders out there waiting to be given their head and some space to lead.  My piece looks at how this can be put together into ‘A Paradigm of Common Endeavour’.

“I worry that government and the chattering classes have gone to sleep on this and wearily assume there is no alternative but to continue to hector and cajole those in public service.  There is a different way.”


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  • The God Revolution. Public impact is easier said than done, admits former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell. Here, he tells Adrian Brown about his experiences as the UK’s top public servant and why impact is rarely viewed as a key priority among policymakers.
  • Championing the disadvantaged. As the UK’s ‘pupil premium champion’, Sir John Dunfordwas tasked with helping schools better support underprivileged children – talk about a worthy public impact. He tells us about his experiences
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  • Three golden rules on delivery. Ray Shostak has a crystal-clear understanding of how a government can increase its impact on delivery. Here, he sets out lessons gleaned from his stint leading the UK delivery unit, extensive experiences on the frontline, and working with governments across the globe