The ethics of the case for public sector reform

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 24/02/11]

David Cameron’s article on public service reform in the Telegraph was the opening shot in what could be a significant battle both within the Coalition and across the House. The case presented raises at least three important ethical issues.

First, the way in which evidence is being used to justify these proposals is deeply suspect. Mr Cameron states that publicly providing bureaucratic and target-driven services might be worth supporting if they delivered quality services: “but the evidence shows otherwise. Whether it’s cancer survival rate, school results or crime, for too long we’ve been slipping against comparable countries“. These are very partial readings of the data. These claims in relation to both health and education have already been challenged and debunked a number of times over recent weeks. Yet they continue to be advanced as a justification for change.

Second, there has been insufficient recognition of the fundamental differences between the objectives of public sector involvement in service provision and the objectives of private service providers. Understanding the differences in the relevant stakeholders, if nothing else, is vital. Private providers, even not-for-profit providers, have a primary responsibility to their shareholders and owners. The accountabilities and stewardship obligations of public providers should be much broader. Mr Cameron might speak of a system open to diversity: “open to everyone who gets and values the importance of our public service ethos”. But there is already evidence that it is difficult to preserve those values in the face of marketisation. Public services are about more than service provision. Mr Cameron doesn’t give a strong impression that he “gets” that.

Third, the thrust of the current proposals is to allow local providers maximal freedom to determine what they provide and how. The belief is that they can be held to account by their consumers. This sidesteps questions of power and inequality. It downplays important questions of probity and transparency. The details will be important, but it is not hard to image an accelerating rate of the judicial review of public decisions once more ‘flexible’ arrangements are in place. New costs are created by trying to remove ‘red tape’.

We are no doubt in for some lively debate on these issues – among many others – over the coming weeks. This is a topic of the utmost significance. Public services are there to break the link between income and access, to ameliorate social disadvantage and to signal social solidarity. Mr Cameron assures us that these fundamental purposes will be untouched by the reforms. That position is, in my view, either complacent, naive, or mendacious. Liberal Democrats need to engage robustly with it.

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