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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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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lights, cameras, action…

By Ashish Prashar

Last night the chancellors squared up in a the first live TV debate in the UK and although it wasn’t always electrifying the programme was certainly a triumph. The three would be chancellors clashed over how quickly the deficit should be cut, tax and what to do with the banks but there was concensus – the candidates were “all agreed that the cuts would have to be tougher than those imposed by Baroness Thatcher in the 1980s.”

In a fiesty hour-long debate the chancellors started off by talking about their personal qualities but it really got going when Alistair Darling and Vincent Cable ganged up on George Osborne to heap derision on the Conservatives’ proposed tax cut. Then the Chancellor attacked Osborne saying he “did not have a single penny in the bank” to pay for his plan to reduce National Insurance contributions and that he was taking a terrible risk… and with Osborne on the ropes Cable weighed in.

Vince Cable went from strength to strength by simply telling the truth. He won the most applause by presenting himself as the man who saw the recession coming, adding “we are not beholden to either the super-rich or militant unions” and winning the biggest cheer of the night when he described people unhappy with 50p tax as “pin-striped Scargills”.

They all criticised the financial sector and the banks in particular came under heavy fire. There was also consensus on public sector pensions until Darling pointed out the Tories’ failure to support Labour on care for the elderly. Osborne then accused Darling of stealing the Tories policy on stamp-duty, Darling replied with “there’s nothing like cross-party consensus Geroge” getting his biggest laugh of the night.

Darling did boob on the death tax and Osborne’s position on child tax credits still remains confusing.

So what’s my verdict?  Well, Darling made no big mistakes. There were a couple of decent gags that got a few laughs from the audience and some flashes of passion, which may have surprised some. Osborne stood his ground and certainly looked calm. However, he made little of the National Insurance announcement and sometimes looked like he was being ganged up on. Cable threw and landed the most punches, and in my opinion secured his place as the people’s favourite by smashing MPs and bankers, and clobbering Osborne over his IHT cut.

This was always going to be a warm-up to the main event; the leaders’ debates. Although I don’t think they will have the same drama and impact as the US Presidential debates they will certainly be interesting.

One last quick note Krishnan Guru-Murthy was excellent and played it really well… Watch Ask the Chancellors!

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Top of the Pops

By Henry Kippin

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There’s an interesting public policy question in the NY Times this morning.  An editorial details a dilemma in Albany, New York State over the application of a ‘soda tax’ – a ‘penny-per-ounce’ tax on sugary drinks.  Here are the arguments:

  • The tax would give a recession-hit city a new way of raising revenue without recourse to increased direct taxation.
  • The tax would fulfil public health goals, discouraging the consumption of sugary drinks.  This would have a long-term positive impact on the city’s obesity problem.
  • The tax would raise public awareness of the dangers of poor food and drink choices, which would also have a long-term beneficial impact.

But….

  • Indirect taxation is regressive.  Poorer households will pay a disproportionate cost.
  • And why should choices be made on people’s behalf about what is good or bad for them?
  • In this particular case, there is a powerful commercial lobbying interest too.

What to do?  Our own work with Volterra revealed how difficult more indirect taxation (through user charges or taxes similar to the above on tobacco, alcohol etc) would be to apply progressively in an already quite redistributive system.  But on the other hand, how can socially responsible behaviour be encouraged without using these kind of ‘hard’ levers? (less a ‘nudge’, and more like a shove!).

In the end, the issue comes down to choices.  No right answer.  And this brings us back to the age-old question of political legitimacy.  How connected are local decision-makers to the people for whom they are making decisions?  To what extent are the perspectives of those consuming fizzy drinks and those legislating on them aligned?  Tough decisions are surely more legitimate (and palatable) if they are made close to the people they affect – and in proper consultation with them.

But in order to make this consultation work, people need good information.  That is where the power of the commercial lobby can be distortive and malign.  And that is what can turn dilemmas of this type into mud fights where self-interest, public good and mandated political authority are hard to disentangle.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 10:18 am
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Monday, August 10, 2009

Inequality, aspiration, stabilisation…and tax

By Henry Kippin

Ashley Seager writes a good review article in today’s Guardian, based on two recently published studies on the housing market, property tax and inequality. The first, from Compass, proposes an annual land value tax, which would be levied on the basis of ‘unimproved site value’, as set by local councils. According to report author Toby Lloyd, the plan would ‘gradually replace the regressive council tax and business rates…(which) would help stabilise the market and could remove the final vestiges of the poll tax.’ He proposes ‘allowances at the lower end’ as a means of making sure the scheme would be progressive, aiming principally at unearned ‘windfall gains’.

A quick glance at the media reaction reveals concern (from the Daily Express, anyway) at the possibility this would be seen as a tax on aspiration – ‘penalising hard-working middle class families’. And they are presumably right in thinking that it would act as a disincentive to home ownership. I suspect, though, that the middle classes they cite would be fine – it would be those accumulating multiple properties, and those at the top end of the market that would be worst hit.

But the basis premise is about inequality – and, according to Seager, the inequality gap in property wealth is larger than that in income. Which is pretty big as it is. As the authors of the Spirit Level might argue, attacking inequality is not about dampening aspiration, but rather boosting opportunity, happiness and wellbeing for a whole society. And on that basis, the proposal should be worth a closer look.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 8:14 pm
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