8 November 2023

Ignore the hubbub – hubs have the power to transform public services


Westminster politicians have announced more hubs in recent years than we’ve had housing ministers. 

An entire article could be filled with examples of public services hubs: 75 local authorities are part of the family hubs programme; the DWP has youth hubs as part of it’s Youth Offer; in education we have maths hubs, and behaviour hubs, among others. In researching this article, I have discovered women’s health hubs. Into this forest of hubs, Yvette Cooper promises new youth futures hubs (in a press release that also reminds us of Labour’s promised mental health hubs).

Suspicions of a recent growth in hub-based policies is borne out by the data. Mentions of hubs in Hansard show about 10 times as much hub discussion in Parliament as the late Blair period, and four times as much as during the coalition. Unless our politicians have been getting more interested in our existing hubs, it seems highly likely this reflects more hubs to discuss.

It is easy to take the cynical view that hubs have simply become a trendy thing to announce, but are meaningless. A couple of my friends joke every time there’s a new government announcement that it will be a hub. Perhaps we need a hubs hub to help people find the right hub, they titter. More hyperbolically, I have seen hubs described as ‘a malignant growth in our constitution’.

I take the opposite view – how to design effective hubs is a central question for the future of public services, across a range of departments. 

This is because, over time, we have come to expect more of our public services, which has made them more complicated. This is most obvious in health, where new departments, specialisms and treatments are emerging all the time as science advances. But it also applies in schools, which do much more to support students with additional needs, and indeed families, than in years gone by. And it applies in employment services, where we’ve added layers of conditions and support to the process of ‘signing on’.

A related trend to this growth in complexity has been increased specialisation. People with complex health needs increasingly see different specialists for different ailments. Young people in schools might be supported by an attendance officer to make sure they are in school, benefit from external tutoring while they are there, and have opportunities to play for an after-school sports team – all in addition to the most obvious part of the schools system, classroom teaching. A Jobcentre work coach has a wide range of potential referral partners to send a jobseeker towards. 

With this increased complexity and specialisation, the public service landscape has become harder to navigate. This is where hubs come in. A hub should be a one stop shop for people to interact with public services in all their complexity, and navigate to the services they need. 

It’s worth saying these trends towards complexity and specialisation do not require a big state. Whether public services are provided by the state, the private sector or charities, it’s the complexity of what’s available to the public that drives the need for hubs. If anything, a smaller state would potentially need hubs more, given that they would likely use a wider variety of providers. 

There is a risk this makes hubs sound like automated phone line, simply directing people to the places they need to go based on options they select. But there are two big things hubs can do beyond simply signposting, which would add real value to public services. 

Firstly, hubs should be equipped to carry out high quality needs assessment. Unlike with an automated phone line, many people accessing public services know what problem they have, but not how to solve it. At their best, hubs could be the place that work to understand people’s needs more fully, and identify which areas of the public services ecosystem are best placed to respond. Hubs should effectively provide case management for people to eliminate the frustration people have about being pushed from pillar to post or the feeling that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

Secondly, as case managers with a detailed understanding of people’s needs, hubs can monitor the impact of the referrals they make, and improve public service efficiency. At the moment, we have no idea which public service providers are more effective than others. Hubs should track the outcomes of all the partners they work with. Over time, they can use this information to refer people to the most effective provision – a win for everyone. 

So, three cheers for our emerging network of hubs – now lets use them to make our complex public services more effective for everyone.

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Ben Gadsby is a writer and policy professional.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.