Putting the public back into public service reform
Is it possible for the public service reform debate to focus on more than just the bottom line? Conventional wisdom says no. At a time when public spending is under so much pressure, politicians must focus on delivering efficiency. This point was made last week by Labour and Co-operative party MP Stella Creasy.
“Wasting money is not progressive. When the poorest people in our country pay the most tax, the value for money agenda is a progressive agenda.”
This argument is often supported by claiming that the public demand such an approach. Yet new research published today by the Fabian Society shows that there is in fact an appetite amongst the public for an approach to services which prioritise the values and ethos of the public good in addition to a focus on efficiency. Whilst it’s true that no one likes wasting money, the exclusive focus on efficiency risks crowding out other things that our research shows people want from public services.
60% of people in our survey found the following statement convincing: Services like health and education should not be run as businesses. They depend on the values and ethos of the public good.
In contrast only 29% found the following statement convincing: Government does things very inefﬁciently. We should let private companies or charities run more of our services.
The Government currently places a very high priority on delivering efficiency savings. Its method for doing so suggests that the private sector is the right vehicle for achieving these savings. David Cameron came into government pledging to put an end to the ‘old, narrow, closed state monopoly…’ in delivering public services. Our research underlines how out of touch David Cameron is with what people want from their public services.
In a nationally representative survey and 9 hours of focus groups, we found a deep sense of unease about the role of the private sector in delivering services. Only 5% of people thought that services should mainly or only be deliverd by private companies or charities. In contrast, 62% favoured services being delivered mainly or only by government.
This research was carried out in spring 2012, and recent controversy around the role of G4S in providing security at the Olympics has served to further illustrate why the public are right to hold reservations about the role of the private sector in public services. Indeed the point was not lost on defence secretary Phillip Hammond, showing signs that even he is learning what the majority of the public already know:
“I came into the MoD with a prejudice that we have to look at the way the private sector does things to know how we should do things in government. But the story of G4S and the military rescue is quite informative.”
One of the key lessons in the G4S case is that there are many elements of value which people want provided by public services that cannot be satisfactorily captured in the price mechanism.
Our research and recent events indicate that for too long public service debates in politics have been going against the grain of public opinion. When our participants heard a politician talking about ‘public service reform’ over half took it to mean “lots of time and money would be spent reorganising”. Almost 40% saw ‘public service reform’ as just shorthand for privatisation.
So how can politicians change the terms of debate on improving public services? Our report provides plenty of insight into what people think would improve services. For the most part they preferred options close to home: more choice, voice and control for people using services and for frontline staff.
Above all, as public services change they need to preserve the essence of what the public say they value in government provision: ‘the values and ethos of the public good’.