The performance tracker assesses how public services have coped during another tumultuous year.
‘The current situation is unsustainable. Whoever forms the next government will likely face huge public and political pressure to provide public services with more generous financial settlements.’
Jeffrey Matsu, CIPFA Chief Economist
Our public services are crumbling
Last year's Performance Tracker painted a picture of a sector in crisis, and this year's is no different. Public services that have for years been creaking, are now crumbling. The public is experiencing first-hand the consequences of successive governments’ short-term policy making.
The report demonstrates that the sector has not been able to recover since the pandemic. In fact, eight out of the nine public services featured performed worse in 2023 than on the eve of the pandemic.
Days before the start of the school year, the government closed more than 100 schools, fearing that they may collapse. Criminal courts are experiencing a record high of backlogs, and rough sleeping has seen a sharp increase.
More worrying still, the gap in achievement between more affluent and less well-off pupils has grown. GP numbers are declining and in the police the number of charges are falling, despite an increase in the number of officers.
These are not isolated problems in individual services, but rather structural system-wide failures. They have been caused by a lack of adequate funding and historic underinvestment in capital infrastructure.
An underpaid striking workforce simply do not have the time or resources to provide the level of service they desperately strive to. This cycle of short-term fire fighting needs to be broken and replaced by long-term settlements.
Public service performance improvement is possible but requires a big change in government’s approach
Fixing the problems described in this report will take time and will not be easy. After a decade of sustained funding pressure, there is no meaningful fat to trim without damaging public service performance further. But higher standards could be achieved with existing funding and staffing levels – if services are reformed to work more productively. Such improvements will, however, require a different approach from government.
This report does not set out to produce an exhaustive list of solutions – that will involve political choices – but instead sets six key commitments that any government serious about addressing the decline in public services must make:
- A new multi-year budget for each public service that is sufficient to enable politically sustainable performance levels without emergency top-ups.
- A long-term capital programme, which addresses the UK’s historic and comparative lack of investment in public sector buildings, equipment and IT.
- A stable long-term policy agenda with clear political and official leadership, which addresses the unsustainable levels of churn among ministers, officials and policy makers.
- An improved approach to workforce management, including on setting pay, workforce planning and enhancing working conditions, to reset the relationship with public service staff and resolve recruitment and retention problems.
- A focus on real-world outcomes that builds on previous plans and encourages coordination between departments, rather than simply focusing on inputs and outputs.
- A more balanced approach to resourcing between acute and preventative services, with a greater focus on preventative services in order to provide support before problems escalate.
Last year's Performance Tracker painted a picture of a sector in crisis, and this year's is no different. Public services that have for years been creaking, are now crumbling. The public is experiencing firsthand the consequences of successive governments’ short-term policy making.
Read our summary of Performance Tracker 2023
We have summarised how nine public services have been performed over the last year in response to both the long-term funding challenges and multiple crises that have impacted our society. The first eight summarised chapters can be found below as well as a summary of the cross service analysis, and this page will be updated over the coming days with the final summary – the task of the challenge cannot be underestimated. In the absence of serious action to improve public service productivity, the government risks getting stuck in a ‘doom loop’, with the perpetual state of crisis burning out staff and preventing services from taking the best long-term decisions. Escaping this will not be easy and whoever forms the next government will be hindered by the short-sighted decisions of its predecessors.