Today we are releasing headline findings from detailed focus group research which we commissioned Ipsos-MORI to carry out into attitudes to public service reform. These are based on 13 discussion groups with a range of ethnicities and socio economic groups weighted towards regular service users in 5 English Towns and Cities: Ashford, Kent; Stockport; Oxford; Birmingham; and London. The full report will be published in early May.
Public service reform is the flip side of the deficit and rising demand pressures. On all these issues there is a reality gap, which politicians of all parties haven’t dared to address. Those hoping that the election campaign would close this gap by introducing specific and realistic plans for cutting the deficit and for paying for and running public services have so far been disappointed. So it’s unsurprising that our research reveals widespread scepticism about generalised and vague ideas for public service reform.
This matters because future demand pressures, particularly associated with the costs of an ageing society, could add 6% to the proportion of GDP which would have to be spent on public services and that’s before taking into account the £40bn black hole in public finances which will have to be filled over the next 4 years. Public services will have to change in response to these pressures. But politicians have denied the public the debate they deserve on this.
Because of the banking collapse and the expenses scandal, voters and politicians are caught in a cycle of fear and loathing. But it needn’t be this way. It’s not that voters won’t support reform. Rather, reform requires clear leadership which engages the public in a proper discussion about the pros and cons of change. Our research suggests the route it could take. It explores the types of ideas which are most likely to be attractive and the conditions that the public want to see satisified.
For changes to be popular with voters they need the following attributes:
- Security and fairness – the main finding from our research is how deeply attached voters are to the values of security and fairness which they see as underpinning public services. Politicians would undermine these at their peril. Any reform to public services will have to maintain their essential characteristics – providing a safety net and support, with processes and outcomes which are seen to be fair.
- Local control – people are receptive to changes which would increase local control over public services. This links with voters’ desire to be able to see and experience first hand changes in services so that they can properly evaluate these. The ideas discussed here here included: greater local control over spending, neighbourhood budgets, local public service co-ops, and more local elected accountability. However, voters want the reassurance of knowing that there are limits to localism, within a national framework of standards so that, as we have seen in Doncaster, central government can step in if necessary to protect citizen’s national rights.
- Citizen control and voice – Individual budgets are a popular idea, especially where they give individuals more control over the money which is spent on them, eg for caring or for children with special education needs. But there are fairness concerns, with people worrying that the confident middle classes might benefit, while those from lower social economic groups or marginalised groups might struggle to make this work for them
- Citizen advisers to help navigate through the system – Another idea which was very warmly received was citizen advisers to help people get the best out of public services and to overcome the fairness problems which people worried about with choice and individual budgets. Sometimes also called choice advisers, these advisers would be a single point within the system where citizens could get they help they need to get the best out of public services. Advice would range from service rights to which citizens are entitled through to how to make the most effective choices with individual budgets.
For voters to be persuaded to back change the following approaches need to be taken:
- Keep it practical and specific – Voters might initially be attracted to big ideas but they soon start to question their practicality. What they are interested in is not so much vague principles but more practical, concrete examples of how change might work. They want to see the evidence of how a particular idea has worked and what the pros and cons have been.
- Gradual, small scale and incremental – People want change which is organic, which goes with the grain and grows out of existing structures rather than root and branch change. That means identifying the changes which are already working and looking at what can be learnt from these. And it means building from the bottom up with small scale changes which can be spread rather than grandiose new initiatives.
- Start with newer, non-core services – People are more likely to support new ways of doing things for either new services or what they see as, non-core services. So mutuals, volunteering and co-payment will work best if they start with services such as parks and leisure services. Whilst the focus groups did not explore how public services might respond to some of the new behavioural challenges such as carbon reduction, and obesity, it would be reasonable to conclude that these may also be areas which are ripe for more innovation.
The public’s strong dislike of user charging is striking. It appears that they see it through the same lens as tax rises and cuts; their question is ‘Why should we have to suffer any of this pain, when it was the bankers and politicians which created the problem?’
Interestingly, the idea of social insurance and partnership funding between the individual and the state for services such as long term care has very little resonance. When pushed participants saw some positives and were also interested in suggesting other elements which could be taken into account, such as social credits which reflected non-financial contribution. But what this shows is that the need to fund some long term challenges in new ways is not yet on the radar for most people – indicating yet again how politicians have failed to engage the public in a debate about the future of public services.
For the 2020 Public Services Commission, the significance of these findings lies in what they show about the need to develop concrete examples of change, to build on where successful innovation is already taking place and the need to have a model of transformation which is based on consent. These findings will feed into the next stage of our work in which we will be moving from the general to the particular, by seeing how the principles we set out in our interim report could be applied to welfare reform, education, health and public safety.