Public services reclaimed

Article by Steve McCabe MP for Fabian Society


Labour is currently engaged in a series of campaigns against cuts; our actions demonstrate a degree of solidarity with public sector workers and of course the view that further job losses can only increase the damage to our already fragile economy. But despite our desire to protect public services can we honestly say that these services always represent the best interests and needs of the public?

Deficit reduction has provided space for the Tory right to mount a sustained attack across the public sector. Service organisations have been preparing for this for some time and when confronted with this challenge have a tried and tested formula. It’s most commonly achieved by employing consultants. They earn a good fee for a relatively short piece of work which usually results in recommendations for reorganisation, job losses and a degree of contracting out. Essentially the service shrinks, access criteria tightens and producer control remains a central feature.

Recently we’ve seen a shift in this approach with councils like Lambeth, under the banner of ‘co-operative councils’, seeking a new form of commissioning as a means of maintaining provision and reducing costs. Crucially, they have set out to involve the public and consumer in ways which haven’t been a feature of such services in recent times. Our trade unions have become rather attached to the producer-led approach so it’s not clear that they can be relied upon to co-operate although their members surely recognise that something must change if we are to protect public services from savage cuts; rebuild them; and, win back confidence that they are genuinely designed with public interests in mind.

At present access to too many of our services feels like completing an obstacle course. It involves participation in a series of unclear rituals. This is largely the same whether trying to see a GP, report a crime or claim benefits. There’s a lack of explanation, privacy, and demands for total subservience to the powerful representative of the producers such as the doctor’s receptionist, call centre operative or middle manager.

The challenge facing us now is to reclaim public support in an era of limited resources for what might be genuinely called public services. Labour needs to be able to commission and develop services that show respect for the public and establish a co-operative mindset between users and providers. Public services should be about the provision of help and assistance but they should be delivered in a way that represents Labour values with the emphasis placed on sharing and co-operation not just task completion.

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