Customers? Time for something a little more feudal perhaps

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 01/10/11]

How should we refer to the users of public services? What sort of identity should be ascribed to us? Over the last 30 years the concept of the service user embedded in policy has been radically reworked.

The language of “clients” or “claimants” in the postwar welfare state was criticised for its implications of dependency. Clients are reliant upon the discretion and largesse of public service professionals. The bureaucrats are in charge.

The Thatcher governments sought to reinterpret service users as consumers exercising choice. Major’s Citizen’s Charter was not so much about establishing the inalienable rights of citizenship as an attempt to import a culture of customer complaint into the public sector.

The later Blair governments were similarly enthusiastic about consumerism, choice and competition – sorry, provider diversity. Initiatives such as personalisation pushing these ideas further than the Conservatives ever attempted. But the Blairites spiced up the mix with communitarian-infused notions of self-discipline and of responsibility to the collective as a condition of accessing services.

One might argue that the Coalition Government’s Open Public Services white paper reprises many fo these well-worn themes. The rise of the choice-making, provider-disciplining public service consumer does indeed appear to be inexorable.

But is that the whole story? Are there, in contrast, signs that the wheel turns again? Read more of this post

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Open Public Services: market fundamentalism with a thin sugar coating?

We forget at our peril that markets make a good servant, a bad master and a worse religion.

Amory Lovins, CEO, Rocky Mountain Institute

The Government’s long delayed White Paper on public service reform – Open Public Services – has now been released into the wild. I blogged an early reaction to its rationale over at Dale & Co on Tuesday. I’ve now had a chance to come to grips with the detail, such as it is. My feeling is that this is an intriguing, infuriating and – at times – alarming document.

It is a document that lacks coherence in a way that suggests it is the product of several hands, or a fevered mind. It is a document that lacks detail in its justification and its implications in a way that is troubling. The policies and initiatives it identifies as being in accord with the Open Public Services agenda are a ragbag of largely unrelated actions, some of which are problematic in themselves.

There are some components of the proposals that are welcome and sensible. They point, for example, to greater local government or community control over services delivered in their area. If the White Paper had stopped there then it would be a very different beast. But such moves to enhance local democratic control are the secondary storyline. This is the sugar coating.

The overarching message is the onward march of marketisation. Read more of this post