‘Building Britain’s Future’ or Forward to the Past?

A new Prime Minister takes over towards the end of a long period of his party being in power. He replaces a charismatic and controversial, but highly successful in electoral terms, predecessor. His government is becoming increasingly unpopular and an election is looming. What new policy wheeze can he come up with on public services to capture the public imagination? How about promising the public that public services will be made to set out exactly what standards of service they will offer and then giving the public rights to demand these standards are met?

Gordon Brown and tomorrow’s ‘Building Britain’s Future’? No, John Major and the Citizens’ Charter, in 1992. But what we know so far about Gordon Brown’s “new” ideas on ‘entitlements’ seem remarkably similar to ideas behind the Citizens’ Charter – and is likely to meet the same fate.

The Charter idea was to set standards and, crucially, to provide means of redress to individuals when these standards were not met – the assumption being that users would exercise these rights and compel public service organisation to stick to minimum levels of service.

The idea fizzled out for several reasons – all related to the simple fact that most public services are provided free at the point of delivery and are not market goods, nor are viewed like them by the majority of users.

The assumption is that forms of redress for individuals can be invented that will actually provide incentives to public organisations to change. When the Charter was first introduced, this was part of the package. However, it soon evaporated as it became increasingly clear it was simply not feasible to deliver without incurring huge extra expense for uncertain gains. Only in areas where users actually pay – like on the regulated and publicly subsidised railways – did this right of redress translate into actual payments (refunds) for poor service. In most free services it was quietly dropped, excpt for some pretty feeble rights to complain.

The second assumption is that people will complain. We Brits are, as we know, not the biggest complainers in the world even when we’ve directly paid for goods or services. When it comes to public services we are even less likely to grumble, except amongst ourselves, because we see public services differently to private goods and services.

The third assumption is what became known in the debate around the Citizens’ Charter as the apostrophe question. Note where the apostrophe is placed. After the “s” in Citizens means that this is about individual rights, not collective ones. We hold public services to account best collectively – either through elections, parties and campaign groups or through formalised ways of being consulted – like the old Community Health Councils (that this government abolished). It needs the weight of collective action by users to have any chance to counter the collective power of producers (doctors, nurses, teachers, police).

So if the new rights and entitlements is to make any real difference it needs to have more teeth, and a different approach,  to its predecessor – or it will end up in the sort of ridicule that afflicted the Citizens’ Charter – Cones Hotline anyone?

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