The progressive case for public service reform

In the summer, a number of Labour ministers posted articles setting out the progressive case for the next stage of public service reform. With the first meeting of the cabinet’s policy review taking place on Monday — on public services — this article outlines the Prime Minister’s thinking on this crucial issue.

As usual, we are inviting longer responses to SDF Editor Alan Johnson at alanjohnsonsdf@aol.com, responses to which the PM will respond in due course.

There is always a progressive case for reform. What progressive case is there for the status quo, except in utopia?

One of the original aspirations for universal public services was that they would help to equalise British society. Education would make for fair life chances. The NHS would equalise life expectancy. We still have a long way to travel.

It is not just that the results are unfair. Access to services is not yet fair either. There is a wealth of evidence that lower-income, less educated and unemployed people do not use health services as much relative to need as their richer, better educated peers.

And remember: there has been a progressive dividend in the very fact that public services today are so healthy. A decade ago it was seriously being debated whether or not tax-funded public services could survive. The long period of under-investment had taken its toll. People had become fatalistic about the mortality of their services. Now, the argument is no longer about whether there should be public services provided publicly at all. It is about how they might best be managed.

Society has changed and its demands along with it. Universal public services were established in something like their current form in the 1940s. They offered a service to a society that was ethnically homogeneous, socially patriarchal, economically industrial and recovering from the experience of large-scale unemployment and rationing at a time of war.

We are a much older people than we were. Our lifestyles have changed. The tides of global markets wash up on our shores. Migration is now more extensive than ever before. The competition from other nations is more intense. The ways in which we deliver services are changing all the time, powered by new technologies.

Perhaps more important than anything else, the expectations of the public have risen. In the early days of universal services the standard of service provision, in all aspects of our lives, was poor. This is not any longer true. The standard of goods is vastly superior to what it once was. It would be na├»ve to suppose that these rising expectations have not been extended to public services. They have. People are now accustomed to a level of service and convenience that is new.

All of these changes have meant that services have to change too.

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