Can the public sector bridge the gap between expectations and delivery?

I said in January that 2011 would be the year we find out what the cuts really mean. the people of Manchester have woken up this morning to the announcement of a £109 million cuts programme and increased charges for many of the remaining services.  This will be a world with fewer swimming pools, dirtier streets, less frequent bin collections, limited care for the elderly and no public lavatories. At the same time, parking charges, allotment rents, cremation costs and replacement rubbish bins will become more expensive.

How people take this news remains to be seen but, as the scale of the cuts sinks in over time, it would be surprising if people did not react with some anger. The cuts over the next few years will only increase the already widening gap between expectations of public services and the state’s capacity to deliver them.

A study last year by the RSA and Ipsos MORI found that, despite the daily pronouncements on government finances from politicians and pundits, people’s expectations of public services continue to rise. The report’s authors concluded that people “now expect more of government than they do of God”.

Perhaps this also reflects lower expectations of God in the 21st Century but the analogy is a useful one. For as long as all but the oldest can remember, there has been an all-powerful state that just delivers things. Many of us don’t know exactly who does what. It might be the county or district council, the NHS, a quango or a government department. But we know what to expect and we expect it to be there when we need it.

The government wants to change this and get us all to become more involved in delivering public services. A fine idea but when people have been used to them being provided by someone else for so long this would require a massive social and psychological shift.

Environmental campaigners would like us to get rid of our cars and use bikes and public transport instead. This is unlikely to happen because we have built our society around the car. Many of us work far from our homes, often on industrial estates or business parks that are poorly served by public transport. The railways that might once have served them were torn up years ago. Our cities are designed on the assumption that most people have cars.

In a similar way, we have also built our lives around the welfare state. Our long-hours, dual income, two-hour commuting, mortgaged-to-the-hilt society is dependent on the existence of good public services. We can only maintain our lifestyles if someone else organises the education of our children, looks after our old people, clears up our rubbish, fixes our roads and keeps our parks tidy. As more of us find ourselves with both children and elderly relatives, our dependence on these services will only increase.

And our expectation is that the state (or someone) will continue to deliver public services. The RSA Ipsos MORI report found that, while people accepted the principle of public involvement in the provision of services, few actively participated. This paragraph is telling:

Encouraging citizens to take more active responsibility for improving services is likely to present some challenges, especially since recent research suggests the public generally has a preference for a passive yet consultative relationship with public services.

In other words, we are happy to tell the providers what we want but not willing to do anything ourselves. Given that our society has been built around the assumption that someone else will provide these services, this is hardly surprising. Busy people with long journeys to work will not volunteer readily. Even the man charged with promoting the Big Society said last week that it is interfering with his work and family life. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the trouble with the Big Society is that it takes up too many evenings.

The danger, though, is that encouraging participation could leave public services with the worst of both worlds; a more demanding public but one that doesn’t want to get involved. The desire for a “passive yet consultative relationship” identified in the RSA survey conjures up an image of lots of well-informed people, only too happy to sign online petitions, organise internet campaigns and turn up to town hall meetings to make demands, but totally unwilling to participate in service delivery themselves. This could have the perverse effect of increasing public expectation while doing nothing to improve the state’s ability to deliver. The gap between the two may get even wider.

A key challenge for the public sector over the next few years will be managing this gulf between expectations and delivery. Worryingly for public sector managers, both are moving rapidly in opposite directions. Even as services are cut, people are expecting more. At some point in the future, something will have to give – either people will have to accept less or pay higher taxes. They won’t like doing either.

A society which has grown used to all sorts of things being available as and when it needs them will not take kindly to having them taken away or being told to pay more for them. Once the reality of this dawns, as it is beginning to in places like Manchester, the shouting will start.

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7 Responses to Can the public sector bridge the gap between expectations and delivery?

  1. Penny says:

    Good post -as ever. I’m intrigued by how much people equate “public sector” with “central government”. As Manchester is about to find out, many of the most basic of the services we rely on are provided locally, though as far as I understand local government finance (does anyone understand local government finance?) the purse strings are held centrally. When services really start to decline locally, who will the electorate be shouting at?

  2. All very valid points. The major flaw in the ‘Big Society’ vision, is that society is incapable of delivering it. However, what is the alternative? If we accept that spending our way out of the this has come to an end, what is left to do?

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  5. Doug Shaw says:

    Thanks for this interesting and useful answer, I appreciate the link to the RSA report.

    I’m not an environmental campaigner, and I do like riding a bicycle. And I think it’s a useful parallel for your article. Interestingly (well to me at least!) according to the DFT the average car journey distance in the UK is under 8.5 miles. That’s no distance on a bicycle (unless you live at the foot of Ben Nevis and your office is at the top), and at my fittest I could nail that in a little over 20 minutes. The average speed of cars in London is now just 7mph, even a moderately fit cyclist can comfortably beat that. Just because our cities are designed full of roads, doesn’t mean we have to fill them with cars. If we could get many more people turned onto pedal power we might even find that spending on roads could decrease (there would certainly be much less wear and tear) with the funds being redirected to other areas which you highlight are likely to be an issue. We would be fitter as a nation too and with more cyclists and fewer motorists we may even make the roads safer. As Pete Shelley once sang “Sooner or later, you’re gonna listen to Ralph Nader. I don’t wanna cause a fuss, but fast cars are so – dangerous.”

    Pedalling our way out of the deficit, now there’s a thought.

  6. Rick says:

    Penny – I think the government hopes people will blame the council when things start to fall apart. This is probably naive – eventually, people always blame national government when things go wrong.

    Matthew – I wish I knew the answer to this. If I did, I’d bottle it! We have to find new and better ways of delivering public services. At the same time it is, I believe, inevitable that the state will withdraw from some provision altogether. My objection to the government’s plans are speed and timing. I don’t think it should be done while the economy is weak and I don’t think it can be done in such a short time. Services will take longer to reform, during which time people will have to get used to the idea that they will not deliver as much.

    Doug – your solution might work for London but if you live in the sticks and commute to a business park miles away I’m not sure that it would. And the lengths that you will go to to get a punk reference in…..!

  7. Strategist says:

    I find this a rather disappointing post. All this stuff about “We can only maintain our lifestyles if someone else organises the education of our children, looks after our old people, clears up our rubbish, fixes our roads and keeps our parks tidy… our expectation is that the state (or someone) will continue to deliver public services” all seems a tribute to the common sense of the Great British public to me.

    It’s simply the division of labour. We are collectively more productive & wealthier if we specialise in our own area of productive activity and interact with others to obtain the things we need that we don’t ourselves produce.

    “The government wants to change this and get us all to become more involved in delivering public services. A fine idea but…” This is hokum, of course, and very disappointing that you fall for it. Cameron and Osborne want to replace public provision of public services with marketplace purchase of essentials like health and education from large private corporations. Turning a progressive tax system with contribution according to ability to pay into a privatised tax system extracting money from the poor to push it up to rich.

    You correctly note that these public services that we entirely logically want will need to be paid for. However, you do seem to consistently miss the point that these things can easily be paid for. We have never been collectively richer than we are now. But at present we are collectively making the bizarre political choice to make taxation optional for big companies and the top 2% of the insanely wealthy, giving to them all the surplus created by our hardworking lifestyles that you so beautifully describe and asking nothing in return.

    Can we do anything about this at the scale of UK alone? Possibly difficult. But at the scale of the European Union, or the G7? Of course we could.

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