Train tracks, The Open Services White Paper reiterates the government’s commitment to increased choice in public services. But does this need to be at the expense of more collective forms of democratic decision-making?

After being absorbed in NOTW, the riots and some annual leave, I’m finally finding time to look properly at the Open Services White Paper. Although there are no major changes in policy direction, the paper does clarify their vision for the role of choice in public services, and one aspect jumped out at me in relation to an exsiting strand of thought about consumer vs citizen roles.

The paper divides services into individual services ‘such as education, skills training, adult social care, childcare, housing support and individual healthcare;’ neighbourhood services ‘provided very locally and on a collective, rather than an individual, basis such as maintenance of the local public realm, leisure and recreation facilities, and community safety;’ and commissioned services, ‘local and national services which cannot be devolved to individuals or communities, such as tax collection, prisons, emergency healthcare or welfare to work.’

While their vision for neighbourhood services and commissioned services includes some now familiar proposals for collective participation such as the Community Right to Buy, neighbourhood councils, and community budgets, this is lacking from the vision for individual services. The guiding principle here is very firmly on individual choice. Although there is discussion of citizen voice and participation in relation to accountability in other areas of the paper, it seems to be secondary in the case of individual services.

There’s a deceptive logic to this distinction, particularly following the quoted principle of decentralising down to the lowest appropriate level – supposedly the neighbourhood and the individual. But taking it down to the individual seems to me a clear departure from the principle of subsidiarity. The decision which you take as an individual is a limited one between pre-detemined options. The power to improve or change the service has not been decentralised to the individual. The White Paper outlines how you will be able to challenge the service available, but seems to miss the opportunity of involving people in decisions and design of the service from the very start.

There is, of course, no reason why such public participation cannot take place within individual services. Indeed, in many cases, it already does; co-production, which doesn’t get a mention, has been very successful in improving personal healthcare.

Choice is presented in the White Paper as part of a movement towards citizen empowerment in which participation often also sits. While the role of choice in public services is a hotly contested and highly politicised one, it’s the potential impact it may have on pariticipaion and engagement in public services which I’d like to consider and which so far seems to have received relatively little attention (though I’d love to be proved wrong on this if anyone can point to analysis or research). It’s important therefore to point out not only that they are so very different, but also how they can at times work in different directions. On the simplest level, a focus on choice has the potential to crowd out opportunities for participation. But are there wider implications than that?

As I argued in a previous blog, the process of choosing a service for yourself and taking part in a collective decision are very different. Whereas in the first you are a consumer, in the second you are (or should be) acting as a citizen. The false distinction between individual and neighbourhood/commissioned services has the adverse effect of suggesting that we should be acting as consumers when accessing individual services but approach neighbourhood services as a concerned and active citizen. Individual services are only individual at the point of consumption; in their distribution of resources, their impact on other services and the spending of taxes, they are just as collective as the maintenance of a neighbourhood park. Too much focus on the individual in the consumption of services could work against a participative culture of shared responsibility and social value.

In one of the RSA’s animations, Renata Salecl lists a number of other, wider social implications of the ideology of choice. Whatever we think of the underlying political analysis, she makes one proposition which seems to me to ring true; that increased choice can have the effect of making the ‘chooser’ responsible for what they receive. If I receive a bad service, it will be because I made a bad choice. My response is to make another choice next time, or simply to accept it’s my fault for not having navigated the system as effectively as others. The public service not only misses the opportunity of learning from my experience, but I also have less motivation to participate in making improvements. The focus on individual choice distracts attention from the structural or political decisions which determine the quality of our public services.

The language of choice is increasingly bundled up with other concepts of empowerment, community, engagement and participation, often used in combination to articulate various visions of the Big Society. This is a vision which Involve hopes may provide opportunities for participation. But there is a danger that in the case of individual public services these opportunities may be lost if genuine empowerment gives way to increased public service choice, presented as another facet of the same agenda.

Thanks to Tim Hughes for the inspiration for this blog.

Photo by gfpeck