Councils run by all political parties boast of having a “customer focus”, yet such a focus will lead to spiralling public expenditure and will also disempower the citizen. Though this approach leads to profligacy it is praised by the Audit Commission
It is a legacy of Thatcherism and will lead to the public being dependent “from cradle to grave”. Thatcher, following Hayek and Friedman, failed to understand everyday economics (particularly of the grocery store) and had a fairly jaundiced view of human nature.
Thatcher correctly identified that both public officials and elected representatives were not spending their own money and so were tempted to raise public expenditure and therefore taxes. Public services were provided inefficiently; national and local government had a reputation for wasteful expenditure.
Her solution was “competition” which would drive down prices; the rigour of the market place would, she felt, mean that the taxpayer would not be paying for that wasteful expenditure.
What Thatcher failed to realise was that the private sector will also drive up expenditure.
Supermarkets have indeed attracted people, because of low grocery prices. Their success, however, is because more of us spend more money, buying more things, more often at those supermarkets. Total expenditure has risen, as indeed has waste, as people buy more than they need.
There is no reason at all to believe that the same public officials and elected representatives, who increase their own wasteful expenditure at supermarkets, will behave differently when offered an attractive array of privately run public services. The almost unchallenged argument that they are getting “better value for money” is a persuasive lever to increased expenditure and taxation.
The assumption, therefore, that competition and the use of the private sector, will automatically lead to savings in public expenditure is as flawed as the previous belief of socialists that if all services are performed by the state, with no profits to shareholders, then this will be the most efficient use of public expenditure.
Not only will this “customer focus”, rather than a “citizen focus”, increase institutional costs, it will, at the same time, disable individuals and communities from doing things for themselves.
The difference between being a citizen and a customer can be seen in a simple example.
If the members of a sports club or a church or community organisation have a social event, someone will bring the sandwiches, someone else the cakes and another will make the tea; at the end volunteers will wash up.
In this way, neighbourliness is encouraged and people are empowered to help each other. The benefits to health and well-being of being part of such groups are well documented, indeed it is sometimes attracts the title of “social capital”.
On the other hand, a member of a commercial club or a visitor to a pub sees a sign that declares that you cannot bring your own food to consume on the premises.
This is not a criticism; it is absolutely legitimate for the provider of a service to make the customer dependent on that service. There are benefits: how many have gone for a Sunday pub lunch and thought that they couldn’t do it at home for the same price? Some even give up doing it for themselves.
It is not too serious a problem if we all lose the ability to make Sunday lunch. If, however, we lose the ability to care for our children and our elderly relatives, the ability to help our neighbour or the ability to organise our own leisure, then we are seriously damaged as social, caring, human beings. Not only that but if we then expect that, as customers, all these should be provided by the state or local authority then the costs rise astronomically and we all become institutionalised.
The “customer focus” also means that local authority officers are encouraged to provide, or contract out, services rather than to empower communities.
If a community wants to run its own street party such as at the Coronation or Jubilee, then for the officer there is no “service” to be delivered to customers. There is no credit to the officer in assisting as there are no outcomes that can be measured in conventional management terms.
On the other hand, if the officer decides that these are to be delivered as a service, then there are contracts to be drawn up, tenders to be sought, services to be delivered, all of which can be measured. The larger the amount of money spent, the more important and therefore highly paid becomes the job of that public servant.
There is no direct benefit to the public official from people who look after their own children or elderly relatives. On the other hand those that can be persuaded to go to a staffed institution, are then customers whose number and time demands can be measured.
The same approach also gives an incentive for the official to apply health and safety checks, and quality criteria to neighbourly activities, more rigorously than is necessary and sometimes more rigorously than they apply to their own provision.
What is needed is a focus on the public as “citizens” rather than as ”customers”, that is as active participants in the processes by which we organise our society rather than as customers dependent on what is on offer.
Contrary to the idea that there “is no such thing as society”, people do not want to be isolated competitive individuals, but rather members of caring, sharing communities.
There is a long way to go. We have had nearly a century of increasing centralised control where the public has been offered either state-controlled or state-commissioned services. Insufficient thought has been given to what factors in both the social and physical environment encourage people to engage with each other for the benefit of all.
We know, for example, that in residential roads where traffic speeds are very slow, children play out and get more social interaction (and more exercise) and that parents talk of “keeping an eye out” for each other’s children and of increased feelings of neighbourliness. Yet successive governments ignore this and erroneously inform us that roads are safer. If they are safe, why do children no longer play out on them?
We know that small community organisations wilt and die under the barrage of over-egged health and safety and criminal records bureau diktats. Yet we never ask if we are prepared to accept a small increase in risk against the certainty that our children will grow up without experiencing a society where it is the norm to organise social opportunities and help for each other.
We know that people want to have time to be with and bring up their children, yet government declares “employment” to be the only reality and offers only institutional “care”.
There are no measures for the multiplier effect that can be achieved by council officers offering advice and encouragement to community groups to run their own activities. In fact, most groups see their council as offering “can’t do” rather than “can do” advice.
There is a veritable army of nearly 100,000 parish and community councillors who are the closest interface between the public and the political processes, yet they are not part of any coherent strategy of community empowerment.
The Audit Commission are encouraging poor management as they concentrate on the tangible outputs of service delivery rather than the real outcomes of healthier, happier communities, more equipped to play their part as citizens.
Charities have an honourable tradition of contributing to our society but successive governments have missed the point when they talk of “volunteers” or “the third sector” and hand out contracts for service delivery. When a person helps their neighbour out of friendship it cannot be measured in service delivery terms. If a community group organises an activity, then the success for the participants is measured in terms of wellbeing, of fun and friendship, not in service delivery.
The more we are part of that communal friendship or social capital, the happier and healthier we are and the more support we give each other – for free.
I am not necessarily advocating low taxation; in fact, in neighbourly organisations with high social capital, people tend to be more generous than in their current attitude to taxation. Churches exhort members to give money “sacrificially” or what in politics has been described as “taxation until the pips squeak”. People are less generous when they feel their money is going to pay high salaries or high profits; they are more generous when they feel part of the process.
Nor am I advocating the end of services by local or national government; but I am arguing against the idea that service delivery to a customer should be the automatic assumption for meeting needs. It also follows that even where there is a service then the recipient need not necessarily be treated as a customer.
An approach based on the citizen rather the customer will give much more diverse results than those to which we are used. In short it will be more “messy”. We cannot, however, pretend that the idea of providing an increasing number of institutional services, on a universal basis, is economically sustainable.
Much-trumpeted government initiatives often reach well less than 1 per cent of the population, so in reality the result is neat: “service” or “no service” – and there are no strategies for those with “no service”.
A “citizen” focus would empower the public, build social capital, be economically sustainable and re-engage the public with the democratic processes.