Public service reform: What’s choice got to do with it?

‘Wherever possible we will increase choice’ is the philosophy of the coalition government towards the modernisation of public services, but we’ve heard this rhetoric before.

Blair believed in, and pursued, a policy of introducing choice into the public sector in order to drive up standards within those services. What exactly driving up standards meant, was defined by the four billion targets Labour laboured under during the heady Blair years.

Leaving a legacy of choice in public services reform, Labour have (inadvertently) passed the baton to the coalition who have taken up the choice agenda with enthusiasm and woven it into their public services white paper published in July. But why will increasing choice improve our public services? If choice is at the centre of reform, just how does the government expect to provide everyone with the same level of choice?

Should you choose to read the white paper – and why wouldn’t you – it might be difficult to find an answer to these questions. Choice is so endemic in public service language nowadays that the government seems to think that the arguments for greater choice are now axiomatic.

The main argument put forward by the government as to how greater choice equals better services is based on the concern that individual service needs are becoming increasingly complex and therefore the ‘one size fits all’ approach to public services is no longer adequate. Public services need to ‘revolve around the needs of the individual’ which means we need to put ‘people in control’. Presumably, the real problem is that the people are out of control and using public services at a rate that the government can’t or won’t sustain.

But having a choice of services means that instead of having to take the universal service provided, people can decide for themselves what service they want to use. The government have even pledged to support the creation of new champions who would protect our ‘right to choice’, to be known as ‘agitators for choice’.

Now, it may just be me, but, at this point I am starting to wonder –is there something missing? When I ‘access public services’ or ‘go to the doctor’s’ as we call it down our way, I’m less interested in choosing which company provides the service than knowing whether they have the faintest idea about human health. Or to put it in Whitehall terms – forget choice, what about quality?

Besides which Blair had it wrong too – the idea of choice as a driver of standards is flawed anyway. Choice drives but not necessarily in an upward direction – it can also lead to dilution and a reduction in quality – see multi-channel TV for details.

Even if choice was the answer, ensuring that everyone has the same level of choice is problematic. The theory goes that in order to equalise choice, you need a ‘diversity of providers’ from the public, social and private sectors. Therefore, ‘diversity’ is also one of the coalition’s five key principles for reform. Again, plurality of providers was also championed by Blair because he realised, rightly, that many private and social sector providers were equally capable (and often better) at delivering public services than the public sector.

However, where the coalition has run aground , is their dogged belief in the power of competition. Apparently it’s a good thing that ‘organisations are increasingly competing for their income and with each other, all within the public sector’. But what of the consequences for Big Society as many small community and voluntary organisations struggle to compete for ever decreasing public contracts which means that their time is spent, not on delivering services and responding to the needs of their community, but perfecting their ability to write tender proposals and cozying up to public sector officials.

Ultimately, the big players will clean up in the public sector market, leaving smaller, community based organisations to go to the wall. The history of the markets tell us that competition leads ultimately to market consolidation eventually narrowing choice, leaving just the biggest and most aggressive players to run the show – again, see multichannel TV for further details.

Unfortunately, the government have decided to cite the work programme as an example of how commissioning new services, can work. As anyone who has had any involvement with the work programme can tell you, the commissioning process has been particularly torturous for all providers and the level of risk for prime and sub contractors is substantial, which of course is the whole point of the exercise, ‘devolving responsibility and transferring risk to providers’. And, of course, in the case of the work programme, responsibility and particularly risk can only be carried by the very largest of providers, thereby exchanging one monopoly (public) for another (private).

Finally, before I go for a lie down in a darkened room, I’ll admit to being a bit confused by all the talk of choice in the white paper, because it seems to contain a glaring contradiction which centres around the government’s rhetoric on localism. In the open public services white paper they emphasise the importance of localism, of putting local people in control and decentralising power to the most appropriate level.

However, this modernisation of public services is being pushed from the centre and the last time I checked, compliance with government policy isn’t optional; there is no choice for localities but to comply with what government are pushing. If, for example, a local authority chooses not go forward with neighbourhood community budgets or would prefer to stick with the services they already have because they actually work, then far from being commended for their localist approach, they’ll find themselves on the receiving end of the government’s disapproval.


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Daniel Silver
Daniel Silver
12 years ago


A really clear article about the paradox of choice that runs throughout the white paper.

Working in the Black and Minority Ethnic voluntary and community sector, we know choices are limited for those without power. Be it the asylum seeker woman who does not speak English or the small grass roots organisation that does not have the capacity to compete with huge corporations, though more often than not delivers a more tailored and effective service.

Furthermore, I think your point about localism is very pertinent and one which does not get much airing. Under the auspices of localism, we have seen much power flow back to the centre, impacting disproportionately on the north.

Either the government is confused by its approach, or knows exactly what it is doing and is being duplicitous. Either way, without the necessary safeguards in place, this will not provide better services for vulnerable people and will not be as the white paper claims, ‘a progressive cause’.

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