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Dis-serving the public

About the author

Peter Johnson has worked in technology companies and financial services and has been Finance Director of openDemocracy since mid-2012. He is a member and trustee of the New London Chamber Choir and also a consultant for KidStart and other businesses. Since 2010 he has been increasingly involved in the education sector: he founded the parent group that in 2013 brought Judith Kerr Primary School, a bilingual free school, to South London, and has carried out consultancies for other school start-ups. He is a governor at both JKPS and another local primary school.

Two recent business policy announcements from the UK government have left me frustrated and depressed.  The first and at first sight most significant is the inauguration of the Asset Protection Scheme, which will finally, it is said, enable British banks to start banking again.  There is nothing commercial about this plan.  Since the government has already promised not to let any UK bank go out of business, the Scheme merely juggles the numbers so as to keep up the pretence that the banks are still private sector businesses.  As Tony Curzon Price wrote here, it is mystifying why neither the UK nor the US government seems able to see, let alone put forward for discussion the obvious way past all this distraction.

The other announcement is in some ways even more extraordinary.  The government proposes to privatise part of Royal Mail, the state-owned post office, mail delivery and parcel service.  Royal Mail's long-term difficulties are well documented and it is not my aim to discuss them or the merits of the proposal as such here.  It's enough to say the organisation is in deficit with falling revenues and very great difficulties in the way of any reorganisation.  The taxpayer must surely receive a knock-down price on any share sold and an increased social security bill when job losses come through.  There seems no good reason why the government should have taken on breaking up Royal Mail, a battle entirely of its own making that it cannot possibly win.  It seems not to have considered investing in Royal Mail.

So why is this happening?  Why are the government, Treasury, and Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform so desperate to keep or get problems off their hands?

At an intellectual level, it's likely that too many people, for too long, have argued that private enterprise methods and disciplines will out-perform governments in almost all areas of service provision that they simply cannot now contemplate, let alone publicly admit, that this view may have been mistaken or require serious, thoughtful qualification.  Politicians will worry about saying ‘Our economic model was wrong.'

But there is probably a deeper, more visceral reason.  What we see is the result of the long-term denigration and dismantling of public servants and public institutions.  The public sector - government, civil service, politicians - simply no longer has the stomach actually to do and be responsible for anything.  The demoralisation is total.  Our government ministries and agencies do not believe they have they power or competence to make anything happen.  And above all, as in the case of Royal Mail, they don't even want to.  The solution to every problem is to pass it off to someone else: the private sector, charities, a regulator, Mr Obama, it doesn't matter who.  It is never, ever, to do a better job in the public sector.

This is more than a question of economic or operational efficiency, the grounds Lord Mandelson has used to argue his case on Royal Mail.  It is a sign that there is now nothing essentially public about public services; that they no longer have moral, philanthropic, or political content.  I'll say it again: with few exceptions we have a public sector that cannot and will not provide public services.

Let's try to pick up some of the pieces.  For a start, what are public services?  As I have indicated, I think the ‘public' is as important as the ‘services' and has been almost entirely forgotten.  Consider, for example the ESRC Public Services Programme at Oxford University.  They ought to know.  But with their strap line of ‘Quality, Performance and Delivery' and research projects on targets, trust, rewards, metrics and all that sort of stuff one wonders.

The term ‘public services' is applied in the UK to many things and the list will vary according to circumstances.  To judge from the usual debate, what they have in common is that the services are provided to the public in the sense that the general public has unrestricted access to them.  That is not, of course, to say that all public services are free at the point of use.  The economic models vary.  In the case of primary medical care, no payment is required.  In the case of rail travel, a sometimes high payment is required.  In the case of education, outcomes depend strongly on one's ability to choose where one lives, understand the choice system, decode school results, decide which church to attend, and so on.  In the case of RBS, the state practically owns the service but there is no supply.  So there are all kinds of barriers to the enjoyment of public services.

But that's only part of the story.  By analogy, think of ‘accounting services' or ‘computer services.'  What these terms describe is not the recipient but the provider and the subject matter of the service.  This should help us think a bit harder about public services.  How do we  decide what should be a public service?  Who - as provider - is the public?  What kind of public-ness characterises the services?

When the public, or parts of it however organised, decide to provide services the purpose is publicly declared, refined, and approved, even if many do not participate in the discussion.  For example, it is hard to imagine that a charity or volunteer could propose to do good works but not say what those works were.  Because public services are not the subject of a purely private transaction, providing a public service necessarily involves saying and justifying what one is doing and being publicly responsible and - one hopes - respected for it.  It means examining what things are done and why, not merely how they might be done most cheaply.  Public services are provided in public.

As a provider, the public is more than simply a source of money to pay for things.  Working for a common good means, I think, engaging in a common endeavour, shared commitment, and mutual support.  Tax is an abstract method of pooling resources, but is still justified by the sharing of costs for mutual benefit.  There are many examples, from army volunteers to vocational midwives or teachers, from clubs to mutual societies, of people being significantly motivated by the desire to serve alongside others in the public interest.  Public services are provided by and with the public.

Beyond these relationships, I would suggest that public services have public-ness when they are provided within a moral framework that acknowledges, even demands the satisfaction of, public social as opposed to private contractual mutual obligations.  In essence, public services are an aspect of political engagement.  They reflect a public discourse about the public interest.

These are just a few contexts that might help us to understand better what public services are and how they might be provided.  Many public benefit organisations consider these matters deeply, but somehow not the British government and its agencies.  They worked at it for a long time, and have finally proved themselves incapable of taking political responsibility for anything.  Terrified and isolated, they lurch from one issue-avoidance to the next, hoping that a popular (or even an unpopular) gesture here or there will distract us from the echo of their moral emptiness.

It is impossible to predict what might trigger a renewal.  Economic disaster perhaps, but here's a less traumatic suggestion: form a plan to invest in just one unfashionable public sector industry with a view to it being successful, respected and even valuable in five years, take it round the country, outside the usual political circles, for serious input and debate, staff up a department with good, well-paid people, put real money in, don't do it on the cheap, don't reorganise it, don't raid it, be honest.  Which industry?  Well, how about a bank or a postal service?