‘Public’, ‘service’, ‘reform’. The very words are enough to make any long-time observer of Labour’s policy wrangles tremble. Over the last 15 years the question of how to improve public services has been debated within the left more than almost any other. Contestability, double devolution, public service agreements, co-production – even the vocabulary epitomises the worst of Labour’s inconsistent and alienating management-speak. Now the Blue Labourites are the latest to enter the fray, with ideas of relationships and institution-building not markets and choice.
But what does the public really think? The Fabian Society’s latest pamphlet ‘For the Public Good’ looked at attitudes to public service reform through polling and focus groups and found deep scepticism with respect to politicians’ intentions and the end-results.
We asked people how politicians’ talk of ‘public service reform’ translated locally. Overwhelmingly, the response was negative with 53% expecting “lots of time and money will be spent reorganising”, 46% expecting that “services would get worse” and 39% predicting that “services would be privatised”. Only 15% expected services to get better, 11% anticipated “more useful choices” and 9% expected “local staff to be given more control”.
We also asked what people thought politicians meant when they mentioned ‘choice’ and again received a sceptical response. 36% thought that politicians used choice as shorthand for privatisation compared to 16% who thought it meant more choice for individuals.
But one finding will come as a surprise to those who think ‘public service reform’ and ‘choice’ sound like ‘Westminster-speak’ of the worst kind. Surely, they cry, people just want their public services to improve and don’t care how it happens. Not so according to our research. 72% wanted to know the details of what politicians are doing to reform public services and how exactly it would make services better, in contrast to 27% who said they didn’t really care so long as services got better. Far from being switched-off by the management-speak, people are so sceptical that they don’t trust politicians to get it right without public scrutiny and challenge.
Our report is not a call for unbridled statism (though it is clear that people see ministerial orders as one key driver of better public services). What is abundantly clear, however, is that there is real unease about the language politicians use to talk about reform. When politicians talk about ‘choice’ or ‘public service reform’ people assume it’s doublespeak for encroaching privatisation, wasteful reorganisation and worse services.
Somewhere along the way politicians lost the ability to discuss public services without sounding like undergraduate management textbooks. Somewhere along the way, we lost the public from public services. Labour politicians must create an authentic new language to describe their intentions for public services – and it must be built around the ethos of the public good, which our research shows people overwhelmingly endorse.
Andrew Harrop is General Secretary of the Fabian Society