The future of the left since 1884

For the Public Good: Our vision for public services

Under the guise of ‘reform’, this government is making sweeping changes to our public services. David Cameron says that state structures will be dismantled, “brick by brick” and will no longer be the default provider of public services. In the...


Under the guise of ‘reform’, this government is making sweeping changes to our public services. David Cameron says that state structures will be dismantled, “brick by brick” and will no longer be the default provider of public services. In the Open Public Services white paper, the vision is of services like health and education not as public goods nor institutions based on a collective ethos, but as “individual services”.

At the same time, unprecedented cuts are changing the face of public services, as local councils, schools and hospitals struggle to deliver the high standards they take pride in with diminishing resources. In the 15 months from the end of 2010 to the first quarter of 2012, almost 280,000 jobs were lost across the public sector.

The portrayal of public services by ministers and parts of the media as monolithic and slow-moving, along with the demonisation of public sector workers as ‘enemies of enterprise’ has set the tune for this double atack.

But the vast majority of the public still have a deep-rooted commitment to the public sector ethos and affection for our public institutions. Danny Boyle’s tribute to the NHS in the Olympic opening ceremony demonstrated the centrality of our universal healthcare system in the national psyche and the nurses and patients dancing in the ceremony showed the deep personal bond felt by those who work in and use the NHS.

This double atack also elects to ignore the huge innovation that exists in the public sector, much of it driven by staff and their unions, through formal arrangements such as the Social Partnership Forum in the NHS or through initiatives at the workplace level, like efforts to tackle climate change led by unions and managers in tandem at Bristol City Council.

The work set out in this pamphlet brings to life public atitudes to public services and discourses around ‘reform’. Importantly, it sets out to challenge the assumption that the answers to our problems are individualist rather than collective. It finds that the public view, far from being aligned with the government’s, is highly suspicious of market-based approaches to public service and of bringing in private providers.

This piece is only a snapshot of a complex cultural, psychological and political issue, but it is an important atempt to challenge common themes about atitudes to the state and the debate around public service ‘reform’.

There are lessons to draw from this work for all of us who support the welfare state and public services.
We must be bolder about speaking up for the public structures that we all encounter, benefit from in our daily lives and might take for granted – from clean water to safe streets to school dinners and maternity services.

One of the striking findings in the polling was that there was a low level of awareness of the multitude of ways in which people come into contact with, and benefit from, public services.

Second, we need to talk in specifics and in ways that relate to people’s experience. Abstract concepts and seemingly remote institutions do not necessarily capture the imagination. We know from the work of Ipsos Mori that ‘local government’, for instance, is not a phrase that inspires great warmth. But talk about specific services – the local youth centre, the carer, the people who clean the estate – and this resonates.

Third, we should not be afraid to talk about ideology either. We have a responsibility to expose the ideology behind the government’s reform agenda. This pamphlet and polling by other organisations show that the idea that people just want what works for them, whatever the means, is flawed – there is a real understanding of the importance of public services as a public good, something that makes a beter society.

There is sometimes a fear of talking about ideology, but when we combine facts and ideology we have a powerful case to make about the damage that the government is doing.

Fourth, we need to be relentless in our pursuit of an alternative economic model focussed on jobs and growth and on fair taxation of the super-rich and corporations who for too long have not paid their way.

Rebuilding our tax base in this way will enable us to invest in public services to meet the growing needs of an ageing and changing society.

Finally, we must promote our own vision. Some like to caricature unions and the left in general as anti-reform or as vested interests. In fact we have our own vision, of properly resourced, publicly delivered and accountable services, with a strong role for staff and users in developing approaches that work best for people – flexible, modern and innovative, but at the same time upholding the core values of public service.

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