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John Tizard: It is time to democratise not marketise public services

Wednesday October 2nd, 2019

Over the last four years successive governments have promoted and at times legislated for the marketisation of our public services.

John Tizard

John Tizard

Competition, competitive tendering, outsourcing, PFI and other market-based approaches have been applied to services such as education, health, criminal justice, transport and many more.

Citizens have been renamed consumers. Citizenship is about much more than using public services.

In most public services there is no direct economic or consumer relationship between the service and those who use it. Of course, public services should serve the common good not solely the individual service users, so the consumerism is a false concept for public services.

Accountability via contracts has too often superseded accountability via democratic governance.

Commissioning has too often morphed into competitive procurement.

Transparency has often been lost in myriad service providers, and too often been hidden behind the curtain of ‘commercial confidentiality’.

Value has too often been interpreted as seeking the lowest cost whatever the collateral damage.

It is very hard to sustain a public service ethos when services are subject to markets and market forces are allowed.

One serious consequence of this pursuit of marketisation and the associated financialisation of public services has been detrimental changes to staff’s terms and conditions and employment security.

The costs of marketisation and its administration are seemingly ignored by public bodies on too many occasions. Politicians, professional staff and trustees across the public and the charitable sectors have come to assume that the default is and will always be some form of marketisation. They have become seduced into the belief that there is no alternative.

Yet there are many alternatives.

These include

  • public bodies pursuing the common good and public value ahead of all else
  • setting the default as in-house publicly owned and publicly managed services
  • charities and other social sector organisations providing services which complement publicly owned and publicly managed services
  • only outsourcing when there is a strong public interest for so doing; and only contracting with providers which demonstrate a public service ethos
  • strengthening democratic accountability for public services with transparency and democratic scrutiny
  • involving citizens, communities and voluntary and community organisations in policy development, strategic commissioning, service design and service performance management
  • adopting a relational partnership approach including using grants when the public sector engages the charitable and social sectors in public service delivery; and contracting on that basis not in the same way as for business corporates
  • pursuing community wealth building and focusing on public value
  • valuing staff, employing them on excellent terms and conditions (with no precarious contracts or pay less than the Real Living Wage) and empowering them
  • creating the conditions for co-design and co-production of services with citizens, service users and staff playing leading roles

There are signs that some local authorities and other public bodies are moving towards the adoption of all or some of these ten conditions. They are rejecting the marketisation and financialisation of public services in favour of an approach based on democracy, the common good and the public interest.

In 2013 the then Coalition Government published its ‘Open Public Services’ White Paper which was about accelerating marketisation.  Let’s move on. We need to democratise our public services.

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