Public Services & Choice - (29.04.04)

One of the key issues in the UK reform of public services has been the idea of extending choice to users (or perhaps reinvented as customers). The debate about whether this results in inflated costs in public sector services such as health and education is being raised by the centre-right, in particular through organisation such as the Social Market Foundation. It is argued that a combination of universal provision, choice and an ever more ageing and expectant population makes services unsustainable into the future.

Public services have clearly improved in the UK compared to 20 years ago, so the debate is on whether the extra money spent has been value for money and whether choice assists in this. It is argued that introducing the concept of choice in public services raises inequality in provision and that choice should be left to between a standard (presumably minimal) public service and a variety of private provisions (supported by voucher schemes).

In reality choice in public services can introduce inequalities, but this should not be seen as a reason for limiting universal provision or not investing in improving public services. Income inequalities in society are the likely cause of inequalities in access to public services, due to the knock on effects that these have on education, knowledge and experience. If we want to reduce inequalities in public services then what is required is a system of advocacy for access to services that compensates for the middle classes being better informed about 'rights' to services and better at manipulating the system to access these 'rights'. A reformed employment service would be the ideal location for such an organisation, which could not only encourage life long learning but could also ensure that equality of access to public services wasn't dependent on education or income.