From the TUC

Putting the public back into public service reform

24 Aug 2012, by in Public services

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’.

GUEST POST: Natan Doron is a Senior Researcher at the Fabian Society.

3 Responses to Putting the public back into public service reform

  1. Jimmy Dingle
    Aug 24th 2012, 5:42 pm

    so there’s no hope for disabled people then – how much would it cost the exchequer to kill them all and be rid – far less than recognising them as human I guess????????????

  2. Furhan Iqbal
    Aug 26th 2012, 8:44 pm

    The myth that the private sector is more efficient and better at doing things has been peddled endlessly by a certain lobby.The reality might is different with some private organisations performing abysmally and some public owned organisations doing rather well, some private organisations doing well and some public organisations being absolutely awful.

    The Swiss railways are brilliant. They are affordable, efficient and reliable. None of those adjectives can be used for the absolutely awful, filthy and over priced rail services in the UK. Enron and amongst many others managed to efficiently fleece investors, the banks bailed out endlessly by the tax payer are extremely efficient at paying a segment of their work force hyper inflated salaries though markedly less successful at doing what they are meant to be doing.

    As regards to the issue of ethics, morality and values sadly this is not just the case for organisations public or private but for society as a whole, which seems to be more inclined to accept the dictats of the market and greed. The problem we face is not just that the private sector is taking over what used to be public, but far worse as it is greed and profits that dictate what happens in society. Sadly, frequently it means that those with the least means suffer the most.

    Atos, G4S and Serco are names amongst others demanding the interest of the public as they gradually take over the public services, police, health, housing for asylum seekers, “processing” of DWP assessments, despite the significant concerns (The Olympics debacle, inhuman treatment of asylum seekers and convicts for G4S, out of hours health care in Cornwall and a string of other “public service solutions” in Australia and NewZealand). This is just the beginning.

    Somebody gave me V for Vendetta to read. I am now eternally indebted.

  3. treborc
    Aug 28th 2012, 1:02 pm

    OF course Labour are one of those that felt the church may be the ones to pay out benefits to the disabled, alms for the poor.

    But of course Government are pathetic at trying to save money, labour spent £800 million on ID cards then dropped it, then you had Browns failed IT systems which lost billions but hell so long as it goes to America Labour did not mind.

    But come to saving money when you go to war, that’s where Brown came into his own, I’ll show Blair that I should be leader.

    Private or public, after the last thirty years neither.