Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Choice and voice in public services

Another day, another article analysing 12 years of labour government and what went wrong. While agreeing with much of the new labour perspective on public service reforms: state regulation rather than control; what matters is good service, not who provides it etc. I feel there is something missing from the analysis. Perhaps it comes down to the obsession with choice and voice. The principle is simple. State provision stagnates, fails to innovate, and crucially fails to provide what the public want, if there is no ability to go to an alternative provider (choice). The solution is either competition or strong mechanisms for voice and customer responsiveness. Fine if you are a policy wonk and are happy to do nothing better than spend hours on end debating the finer points of the failings of a particular service or weighing up a variety of choices. But most people want life to be simple. In all honesty how many of us, even writers and readers of a political blog, have decided not to complain about bad service (whether publicly or privately provided) because the time and effort involved did not seem worth it. Too often such calculations, which we make instinctively, are not considered in public policy making. I’d like to see a debate about choice-and-voice-lite. Policy makers decide where the state needs to intervene, and in what way, and there is a default option for service. If members of the public are dissatisfied with that they can then exercise either choice or voice. But neither should be seen as hoops we have to jump through – consider three hospitals etc. – before we are allowed access to the service.

Since this is my first post on LabourWomen, it also seems appropriate to point out that much of this choice is exercised by women in their role as primary carers of children (school choice) or the sick (hospital choice). Too often, for too many, it can be just another burden.

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