What’s the smallest, cheapest public service you can imagine? In New York in the summer, they wheel little carts into public areas that connect to the water system and provide six water fountains in a line. As the city boils, that’s a vital public service. In Whistler, picnic sites are accompanied by snowboard tools for public use, tethered by ropes. In Moscow, picnic sites have chessboards on the tables, turning them into some of the cheapest public playgrounds in the world.
I was reminded of these examples last week at the Creative Councils Camp, as Innovation Unit began its work helping seventeen councils to develop different, better, lower-cost public services. The fantastic team from Cornwall are inspired by equally simple examples of local problem-solving, and how Councils can get better at enabling them. One such example is of a village that’s seen its bus services into town cut. The solution? The villagers have painted a cross on the pavement next door to their bus stop. If you stand on the cross, it means you would like a lift into town, so that locals heading that way know they can stop and offer a lift.
This prompts an immediate question – how do those people get home!? I’m assuming the bus service back is a little better. But in any case, that little spray-painted cross counts as one of my favourite public services, because I can’t think of a cheaper, better, lower-tech public service.
Of course, the question of whether it is a public service isn’t the issue. Perhaps these are just examples of civic spaces – spaces that model and reproduce key social values, from the intellectualism of Moscow, to the camaraderie of English village life. The point is that over the last fifteen years, we have invested ever more in public services and expected ever more from them. At the same time, we have retreated from regulating and re-shaping other areas of economic and social life. As a result, almost every public service we work with at Innovation Unit struggles to serve increasingly weak and socially isolated communities. For me, the significance of these examples of tiny public services – little more than built-in helpfulness – is not that we can cut public services ever harder without fearing for the consequences. They are a reminder that we can also tackle social challenges from the other side – that there are things we can do not just to transform public services but to transform society.