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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Equality and Cohesion in an Age of Austerity

By Paul Buddery

Was the Budget fair?  The Chancellor characterised his measures as ‘progressive’ in that the rich stand to lose more than the poor.  But not everyone agrees.  The IFS calls the claim ‘debateable’ http://www.ifs.org.uk/budgets/budgetjune2010/chote.pdf , largely because it leaves public services out of the equation.  It is poorer households that tend to be the biggest public service users, with in-kind benefits of £6,300pa for the bottom fifth compared with £3,900pa for the top fifth.  There is a clear and serious risk that a sharp reduction in the funding of public services over the next few years will widen social inequality.  

Can we organise our public services differently, so that an age of fiscal austerity doesn’t also become an age of accelerating inequality?  Yesterday we published Equality, Cohesion and Public Services, a research report that asks how to ensure that poor and disadvantaged individuals, families and communities are not left behind.  It looks at some of the many different approaches to reducing inequalities and improving social cohesion that have been deployed in recent years to ask what’s worked, what we should keep, and where we need to do much better. 

Some important strides have been made, but the evidence presented here is a sobering reminder of just how profoundly unequal we remain in many respects, despite years of reform and substantial investment, so that outcomes in education, health and criminal justice, for example, remain strongly related to social background, race and gender.  Public service interventions in support of equality and cohesion take place in a dynamic environment, often against considerable contrary economic and cultural pressures.  Even where gaps have narrowed, it can be hard to pin down what actually made the difference.  It appears both top down and bottom-up service reforms have made a contribution, although quasi-markets have the potential to exacerbate inequalities in some circumstances.   Targeted investment has helped, but targeting in a way that captures all – or even most – of those who need support is notoriously difficult. 

Our public services have focussed on the fair distribution of entitlements.  In itself this has been reasonable and necessary; but of itself it is clearly not sufficient to move us to a more equal society, underplaying as it does the importance of converting entitlements into valued outcomes.  Key to making this ‘conversion’ happen is a system of public services that gives all citizens a far greater say in deciding their own valued outcomes, and enables them to play a bigger role in achieving these.  The 2020 PST trust believes that our efforts to reduce inequality have been hampered by a besetting habit in public policy making which sees professionals defining the nature of the problem to be ‘solved’, finding the resources to address it, and directing how the resources are used.  In 2020 PST language, services have grounded themselves on ‘social security’, where they should be supporting ‘social productivity’, and never more so than with disadvantaged individuals and communities.

Polly Vizard’s chapter in the report is persuasive in this context.  She proposes that the capability approach, pioneered by Amartya Sen, offers a better framework for analysis and action to reduce equality than those in which debate and practice has traditionally been cast – such as resourcism or negative liberties.  It evaluates the position of individuals and groups in terms of their real freedoms and opportunities – the central and valuable things in life that they can actually do and be.  Linked to a clearer and more accessible rights and human rights framework, Polly argues that the capability approach can deliver benefits not only in equity, but in efficiency.

Many communities, activists and professionals have worked hard to put equality concerns at the centre of public service policy and practice over recent years.  The challenge today is to make sure that they become part of a credible narrative of sustainable reform.

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Posted by Paul Buddery at 1:24 pm
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