Public Services Should Value And Respect Citizens – They Are Not Supermarkets With Consumers

Over the last few decades, all governments have seen their stewardship of public services as requiring them to introduce/adopt more and more practices and the language of commercial businesses.

This approach does not fit easily with public service and a public service ethos. One specific problem is that when combined with political expediency, an impatience for quick results, an inherited bureaucratic cultural legacy, and austerity – this approach has had the additional impact of eroding the concept of ‘public service ethos’. Sadly, in far too many cases, it has led to the inefficient use of public expenditure and, consequently missed opportunities for citizens.

In this context I was interested to find and read ‘Responsibility and Public Services’ by Richard Davis (Triarchy Press, 2016).

Davis argues that citizens become cogs in the machinery of public services.Richard draws on theory but principally on his experience as a consultant working with the public sector and occasionally with ‘not for profit’ organisations, to describe the benefits of adopting ‘a responsible and sustainable way to provide public sector services’.

This short book cites many examples and case studies that support Davis’s thesis and view of public service provision. These are all of great interest and, on their own, are a good incentive to read the book. The case studies are drawn from the NHS, local government and other service providers’ experience.

Davis claims that the book is written for those “who work in the public sector, who would like to find real solutions to people’s needs.” I have little doubt that such people will gain from reading it and facing up to the challenges and solutions it offers. Whilst they may perhaps not agree with all of Davis’s arguments and assertions, it would be short-sighted to dismiss this book, its examples of public service practice and its arguments for people-led, public services.

Davis challenges the ‘too often’ stated media and political assertions that the private sector is more efficient than the public; the private sector model can be transferred to the public sector; and that the public sector is inefficient. Drawing on much evidence Davis debunks these over-generalised assertions, I have little doubt that many of us who are committed to the public sector and public service will enjoy reading this section of the book.

Davis places great emphasis on the need to involve citizens and those who use public services in their design, so that these services address what matters to them in ways that ensure they deliver the outcomes that they seek. Davis is at his strongest in this regard, and all public sector leaders and managers should read this chapter and inwardly digest it.

He also makes the case for citizens to be empowered to take responsibility for addressing their own needs. I have much sympathy with this view (although personally, I struggle to accept that this approach should be an excuse for cutting public expenditure, or that there is ‘never’ a role for professional workers to advise, support and, where necessary, to act). Co-design and co-production can make significant contributions in the right service areas, and the examples in the book are worthy of serious consideration.

An interesting and useful idea that Davis promotes is to put ‘expertise ahead of services.’ This should lead to the breaking down of both institutional and professional silos, which have for far too long resulted in fragmented public services and led to poorer outcomes. Citizens may, in some cases, not know the ultimate solution they require but they usually do know what their issues and needs are. And invariably, they want solutions that draw on expertise rather than being concerned about who provides them. Quite right too.

In some very readable chapters, Davis deals with: the importance of data collection and analysis; making change happen; getting value for money; and the citizen’s relationship with the state. In this latter chapter he makes the reasonable (and, I believe, correct) argument that the market is often not the answer to the question of ‘how can we improve public services’? In particular, Davis takes aim at the heart of ‘New Public Management’ and its over-attraction to market approaches, competition and outsourcing. His words on these subjects should speak directly to politicians and public sector leaders.

These leaders need to realise that primarily, we are citizens rather than consumers when we engage with most public services – services, which typically serve the collective community and not solely individual users. Generally, we pay for them through taxation and should support them for their contribution to social justice, economic progress and safety. And for the most part, this is not how a consumer relates to their local super market. The NHS or a school, for example, are not supermarkets!

Davis is very much in favour of leaders allowing staff at all levels in the public sector and other public service providers to have ‘discretion’ to make choices when delivering services, and he describes many examples of where this approach has led to better outcomes and often lower costs.

He goes on to argue that change should not start at the top. He is not comfortable (something of an understatement, I suspect) with national politicians setting goals alone, and worse, expecting immediate results to fit with the electoral cycle or even more quickly with their ministerial tenure. He sees leaders as critical to the future of public services but with them focusing on understanding what matters to citizens and then acting on this: using data to measure performance and understand what works and what does not; empowering staff; ensuring that expertise is available to support front-line staff and citizens; and paying attention to system-wide leadership that promotes and supports conditions necessary to support effective outcomes.

In my opinion Davis underestimates the importance of politicians and their role in a democratic system of government – both national and local. Democratic accountability is vital, and is diminished when markets dominate, and can, in particular, be obscured when public services are outsourced. Putting citizens at the heart of public services (which Davis strongly advocates) can, if done properly, enhance and extend democracy – rather than deflect from it. -I am sure that Davis is challenging our system of democratic government but that this is not as clear in the book as it could have been.

Also, there has to be some recognition that political decisions will not always follow evidence or logic as seen by either public service professionals or sometimes, even citizens. What does matter is that political leaders are, ultimately, accountable to citizens.

I do believe that progressive politicians in particular will see the benefits of other of Davis’s wider arguments. Similarly executive leaders will likely favour the championing of responsibility and public services, which respect the opinions and views of citizens in an appropriate manner.

I believe that excellent leadership is critical to effective and excellent public services but this must be inclusive with a strong emphasis on listening not telling.

Davis and those who sign up to his approach towards public services should not allow themselves to be regarded as apologists for austerity, public service cuts and the creation of a smaller state. There is risk that some of the book’s approach could be seen as accepting or at least tolerating austerity.

Efficiency and reduced costs at the same time as improved outcomes are goals that everyone that wants. Many of us passionately believe in an ‘active’ state, with high levels of public expenditure to address need, drive economic progress, and secure social justice. However, we do need to recognise that the latter views are inconsistent with, at the same time, arguing that citizens should not individually,
voluntarily and collectively take responsibility and undertake action to address what matters to them – or be involved in the co-design and co-production of public services.

The book does not give much attention to the growing – whether this be a good development or not – of citizens directly purchasing services and some cases co-funding them with the state. This is a disappointing omission.

There are some good examples of voluntary and community action and service delivery. I feel that their contribution should be promoted more strongly and more frequently.

One core criticism of this interesting and very readable book is that the many case studies and examples, which appear on almost every page, whilst very helpful, end up being not quite as insightful as they could have been. For instance, it would have been useful to have had some examples of where the proposed approaches have been less successful or even failed; and to have had some analysis of what led to the respective successes and failures, what the barriers to progress were, the learning points – and how leaders, staff and citizens responded.

‘Responsibility and Public Services’ has one overarching core message – public services should address what matters to citizens. This message should be heeded by politician, leaders and practitioners across our public services even when they don’t accept or agree with all of the book’s content.

Davis encourages us to challenge and I encourage others to read the book and consequently challenge Davis himself, but more significantly, their own values, thinking and practice.