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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The disconnect between voters and politicians on public services…

By Ben Lucas

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.

You can read a summary of the findings here

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by 2020pst. 2020pst said: Blogpost: Ben Lucas blogs on the disconnect between voters and politicians on public services… [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Blogpost: Ben Lucas blogs on the disconnect between voters and politicians on public services… -- — April 28, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

  2. Our citizens deserve & should demand the best.

    We should design, deliver & develop modern, confident successful public services.

    The citizen as the client-customer doesn’t particularly, in my experience who or how things are delivered, increasingly so in the 21 century.

    The the antecedents of journey towards Total Place can be seen here in Blackburn from the mid/late 80’s…

    We need to keep moving, navigate carefully between the inertiaviks & the changeaholics. We have much to do!

    Comment by Sir Bill Taylor — April 29, 2010 @ 8:31 am

  3. [...] public are not prepared for what is about to hit them. Only 25 per cent of people surveyed by the RSA 2020 Public Services Trust believe that there will be cuts to tackle the deficit. Millions of ordinary people who are [...]

    Pingback by Brown, Cameron and Clegg have all betrayed Gillian Duffy « LGiU – the local democracy blog — April 29, 2010 @ 10:13 am

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Warwick Mansell, 2020pst. 2020pst said: Blogpost: Ben Lucas blogs on the disconnect between voters and politicians on public services… [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention The disconnect between voters and politicians on public services… « The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog -- — April 29, 2010 @ 11:28 am

  5. Ben, this research has been presented in a seriously misleading way.

    For a start, your headline claims that you’ve discovered the opinion of “voters”, and yet your research is qualitative amongst selective groups of “heavy users” of public services. Focus groups are not quantitative reflections of public opinion at the best of times – and particularly not when you choose them to be biased in a particular direction.

    Second, you haven’t published the actual questions that the groups were asked/policies they were presented with. As you’ll know, this is crucial in assessing whether your headline conclusions are actually correct or fair. For example, the choice (discussed on the Today Programme piece this morning) between cutting public services or making efficiency savings is a false one – and the fact people chose the latter reflects more on a dodgy question than on poor public understanding of the fiscal situation.

    Finally, can you explain where the percentage public opinion figures cited in the BBC’s report this morning come from? There doesn’t seem to be any mention of opinion polling here…

    We’ve done a more detailed write-up of these issues here:

    Comment by Mark Wallace — April 29, 2010 @ 11:55 am

  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tony Bovaird and Warwick Mansell, 2020pst. 2020pst said: Blogpost: Ben Lucas blogs on the disconnect between voters and politicians on public services… [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention The disconnect between voters and politicians on public services… « The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog -- — April 30, 2010 @ 3:29 am

  7. Mark, thanks for this and delighted to have sparked some debate. But I’m afraid you seem to have got the wrong end of the stick.

    1. Our motivation for conducting this research is not to come up with reasons for not reforming public services. It’s the very opposite. The reason we set up a Commission in the first place was to look at how we could create consensus about a new settlement on public services. We believe this is needed for three reasons. Firstly, because public services are very often failing now to achieve the social outcomes which we would all want to see. Second, that the scale of the deficit poses huge questions about how we can pay for public services. And third, that we know that future demand pressures, particularly related to demographic change and our ageing society, will add new costs that haven’t even been factored into the debate about how to cut the deficit. All of these make the existing settlement increasingly unsustainable, hence the title of our interim report “Beyond Beveridge”. The question we are seeking to answer through our citizen engagement work, one part of which was the focus group research, is where do people stand on this now and how can we create the conditions for consensus to bring about change.

    2. As we made very clear, both in my blog and in Sir Andrew’s interview on the Today programme, we do not see this research as showing that the public won’t support public service reform, but rather as setting out some valuable insights into the type of change that people find attractive and the best ways to convince people that reform can work. I set these points out in detail in my blog.

    3. Our basic point – which I am surprised that the TPA doesn’t agree with – is that the main parties are denying the public the debate they deserve about the deficit and public services. We saw further evidence of that in last night’s leaders’ debate, where none of the three leaders gave a convincing answer to the first question on coming clean about cuts and the deficit. In the context of such a leadership vacuum it is hardly surprising that the public are sceptical about vague reform ideas and don’t appear to believe that cuts are necessary.

    4. On your question about the source of the quantitative polling research referenced on the Today programme, this comes from a report which we published last month and which has been on our web site ever since. The report is called What do people want, need and expect from public services? It was published jointly by the 2020 Public Services Trust and the RSA . It is the most extensive review of polling data I am aware of on the subject of public attitudes to public services. We published it on the eve of the election precisely because we thought that it would provide useful source material for journalists, policy makers and organisations like the TPA, which are interested in the future of public services. I would encourage you to read it and am sure you and colleagues will find it useful and interesting.

    5. As I made clear in my blog, we have released the headline findings of our focus group research now because, taken together with our earlier report on public attitudes, we think that this gives an interesting insight into how people see public services and which types of changes and arguments they are most likely to respond positively to. A short summary of these headlines is available on our web site, under the clip of Sir Andrew Foster’s interview on the Today programme. We will be publishing the full report in early May and will of course send you a copy of this.

    Comment by Ben Lucas — April 30, 2010 @ 11:43 am

  8. [...] essay that comprises the Tory manifesto, comes in no less a form than research conducted for the 2020 Public Services Trust by Ipsos [...]

    Pingback by Public rejects Cameron's "Big Society" | Left Foot Forward — May 2, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

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