Opening up Public Services: power to the people or power to the market?

High quality public services are an essential part of everyday life. Being able to access those services is one of the most basic requirements that we as citizens demand from the government. Not my words; but those of David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the first paragraph of this week’s long awaited and much trailed Open Public Services White Paper. The coalition government make much of their urgent moral purpose, which aims to extend equality of opportunity to all. But does the White Paper contain the broad strategic direction and specific policy solutions that will allow them to deliver on these laudable objectives? 

Why does it matter?

Predictably there is very little in the White Paper that represents anything new with most initiatives having already been announced. It does however represent a clear statement of intent about the future of public services. The broad direction of travel set out in the White Paper is one of ideology over evidence with the marketisation of public services driven by choice and competition.

There can be no clearer message that the White Paper seeks to open up public services to the market than the statement made by David Cameron;

‘This White Paper says loud and clear that it shouldn’t matter if providers are from the state, private or voluntary sector’

Those of us in local government know that despite the media narrative, a state monopoly in the provision of public services has never really existed. In fact a recent guardian article makes the point that at least 40% of local authority spending goes on private and voluntary sector contracts. But in the end although local authorities can divest themselves of public service delivery, they cannot divest themselves of the responsibility for those same services.

Much of the commentary and analysis thus far has focused on the potential for further marketisation, yet the White Paper does set out five key principles for reforming public services:

Choice

People will be given direct control over the services they use, increasing choice through methods such as direct payments and personal budgets. This is premised on the notion that choice will drive competition, which will in turn improve standards. But choice for who?

Indeed, a recent blog from NEF makes the critical point that;

‘People who are better educated, better off and better connected have louder voices and are better placed to navigate information and make choices that bring them real benefits’  

Decentralisation

Power should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level because the closer decision making is to the people affected, the better. Again, no one across the public sector is going to argue that empowering local communities isn’t a good thing. Indeed, some of us have been arguing for a greater focus on empowering local communities for a long time. But is it not the case that major public spending cuts impacting severely upon local services means that decentralisation isn’t just about devolving power, it’s also about devolving responsibility for cuts to services?

Diversity

This is without a doubt the most controversial element of the White Paper. The government are clear that services should be open to a range of competing providers and there is no presumption that only one sector should run services. It has been much commented upon that the government announced its plans to introduce further competition and marketisation into public services on the day that Southern Cross announced it was shutting down. There can be no clearer example of the impact that market failure can have on the provision of frontline public services. 

So, how can opening up more public services to more market competition possibly address this problem of endemic market failure?

Fairness and accountability

The state will have a new role to ensure fair access to public services that are responsive to the people they serve and held to account by citizens and elected members. However, there is a clear gap between rhetoric and reality with no sign of these warm words around ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ being matched by the required policy substance. The White Paper talks about improving accountability through mechanisms such as ‘choice’ and ‘voice’; but it is difficult to see how this can be squared with the need to reduce inequalities.  

Good public sector organisations are always innovating and changing to improve services. But of course public services need to adapt and respond to changing circumstances. It’s about time we had a real debate about reforming public services;

  • A debate that doesn’t disguise reform as a cover for public sector spending cuts and marketisation
  • A debate that seeks to draw upon the expertise, knowledge and passion of public sector staff rather than constantly attacking their pay, pensions and job security
  • A debate that recognises that local government is key to the size and vibrancy of the voluntary sector and understands the need for collaboration rather than competition

 Written by Adele Reynolds

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