If you’ve ever had to use a jobcentre, you’ll know that the public sector is far from perfect. Walk in and you’re frequently humiliated by an overworked staff member pointing you to a machine full of minimum wage jobs without prospects. You’re nothing but a number. If you’ve ever spent time in a mental health centre, you’ll know the staff can ignore or bully you. Then of course we’ve had the care home crises, and anyone who’s had to call their council to report so much as a pot hole knows you can often wait for hours at a time.
The problem here isn’t just funding cuts, although they often make the situation worse. These problems were happening in the 1990s when we were flush with cash. The problem, very often, is centralised systems of power that are remote and disconnected from the very people they are supposed to serve.
Let’s be clear: this is also a huge problem for the private sector. Look at the energy companies, where six large corporations distantly control power supplies often run by foreign companies. Look at the housing market, which again has become an oligopoly. Any economist will tell you that when a market becomes overly centralised around a few players, they cease to run an efficient service in the interests of consumers.
This analysis explains our poor rail services. Whether it was privatised or nationalised, the rail network has still been run by a centralised set of elites who are not accountable to the people they serve or the workers they employ. Lack of accountability breeds complacency, and it takes longer for us to travel for fares that always seem to rise.
We could experiment with a different way – the ‘thirds’ model. Under this method, the board of any body running a public service is made up of three groups who are equally represented. The first is the users of the service – such as passengers or patients. The second group is composed of the workers of that organisation – the drivers, cleaners and ticket sellers, or the doctors and nurses. Then the final group would be made up of the financial backers of the service, be they private companies or government representatives. In cases of free schools or foundation hospitals, it could also be a requirement to have local authority representation too, in order to ensure collaboration and coordination between similar services in the region.
In one step we could then decentralise services, make them more responsive to local people, and give people the opportunity to make a contribution to the services they care about, rather than just moaning about them.
Once you have a balance of different interests at the table, services can be run more efficiently and accountably. Imagine if job seeker claimants could actively negotiate with top civil servants about their service. Or if the ticket office salesperson had a chance to have their say on rail routes. Or if university cleaners had the chance to sit in on pay negotiations with vice chancellors. We’d all learn from those kind of exchanges, and new leaders would be trained as they debated amongst themselves. Sure there would be tension, but that’s got to be better than exclusion. Let’s give everyone a seat at the table, and trust them to take responsibility for the services they care about. If Jon Cruddas and Ed Miliband want people-powered public services, this is what it looks like.