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Frustrated, powerless and ignored

Frustrated, powerless and ignored: the top three words people associate with their experiences of public services. This despite record levels of investment under Labour and 13 years in which public service reform was repeated as a mantra. Whilst the culture of...


Frustrated, powerless and ignored: the top three words people associate with their experiences of public services. This despite record levels of investment under Labour and 13 years in which public service reform was repeated as a mantra.

Whilst the culture of delivery and use of national standards drove huge improvements in public services, there remains a feeling that Labour in government was too ambivalent about the ‘relational’ aspects of service delivery. At its worst, this approach left many feeling alienated by their experiences of public services.

This new research by the Fabian Society – which involved a YouGov poll and a series of focus groups – is perhaps the starkest evidence of this trend so far.

People in our focus groups equated participation with power – giving a louder voice to local people in decisions about running services was seen as central to improving quality. People want to be involved, not just to have things done to them. Participants also suggested that it would provide a chance for local people to feel ‘a part of something’.

This idea presents a fairly strong argument in favour of viewing public service reform as a vehicle for civic engagement, particularly as we found that those who choose not to vote are also those who feel the least ownership of services.

The ability to influence and control your local environment is one that should be extended as wide as possible to reduce inequalities in society. It is for this reason that public service reform provides a credible ‘way in’ for attempting to engage people who have lost faith in politics or perhaps never had such faith in the first place.

So rather than seeing debates about public service reform purely as a sterile discussion about increasing choice through an increased diversity of provider, a fresh look at public service reform needs to integrate attempts to engage people in politics and hold local services to account. In taking this further, ideas of citizenship and obligation are arguably more fruitful avenues for future public service reform debates.

The principle of obligation is a key feature in the effective running of juries in our justice system. This is seen as a legitimate ask of citizenship as the majority are seen to benefit from the functioning of our justice system. Could it be argued that a similar benefit would be provided for the majority if our public services were systematically held to account in a system driven by obligation? If we are serious about people participating in local decision making, we should be bold about giving them time off work to so. This could provide fertile ground for a progressive localism agenda that would serve as reinforcement to a domestic policy agenda based on equality.

Reclaiming the localism agenda

Often, the left fears localism. The desire to set high national standards for public services are seen as contingent on central control from Whitehall; the more you devolve to local control, the more variation and unequal levels of service you get. This leads to the dreaded ‘postcode lotteries’.

It is important to recognise that localism can take many forms. There is the recent ‘big society’ form advanced by David Cameron’s coalition government, which suggests that the most appropriate form of localism is for local communities to take over and run their own services. Critics of this approach have argued convincingly that the ‘big society’ agenda in practice has been little more than an attempt to dismantle state provision of services.

Other forms of localism have been less demanding of people and focused more on providing an increased voice for service users in the running of services. Examples are patient boards on foundation hospitals or school governors. A wealth of evidence shows that such platforms for user voice are often prone to capture by those with either a disproportionate interest in the running of the service (professional or personal) or simply a much greater capacity to be involved as a result of spare time and experience of accountability processes etc. This has led many commentators to view such accountability platforms as dominated by ‘the usual suspects’, the group of people that Nick Clegg referred to as the “sharp elbowed middle classes”.

Critics of both the ‘big society’ as well as the accountability process approaches to localism have argued that the public do not really want a greater role in running services as they are ultimately concerned with outcomes. What matters is simply what works. If services are of a high standard, the public do not need to and will not want to get involved. Furthermore, the majority of the public do not usually have the time to get involved with holding services to account, let alone running them.

This point about time further reinforces the argument about ‘postcode lotteries’. It is in postcodes where people have the independence afforded to them by a concentration of wealth where they can devote energy to ensuring their public services are of the highest standard.

But this is not a convincing argument against the principle of increased engagement with the running of public services. This argument is actually more to do with the high-stress, time-poor nature of economic reality in Britain today. We work longer than many of our European counterparts, according to the Office for National Statistics. In addition, work by Glenn Gottfried and Kayte Lawton for the Institute for Public Policy Research has shown levels of in-work poverty are on the rise in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Time-poverty is a major issue in need of addressing. But it should not act as a shutter on debates about active citizenship. Both time-poverty and decreasing levels of civic engagement should be addressed in public policy debates.

Research findings

 In the nationwide survey commissioned by the Fabian Society, respondents were asked to offer a perspective on the three or four words or phrases they associated with their experiences of public services. As seen in table 1 below frustrated, powerless and ignored were the most common answers [1].

Table 1: Words and phrases associated with experiences of public services

This picture of frustration and powerlessness was also borne out in the group discussions. The below extract is typical of the manner in which participants used the language of powerlessness.

Female 1: Libraries, they’re a disappointment

Moderator: Can you say a bit about why?

Male 1: I’m just looking at that list up there and every single one of them has been cut back. NHS, pensions, libraries, public transport

Moderator: If we just move back for the moment from how the system is running, we’ll talk a bit about that later, if you think about when you’ve used the service, how it felt then?…

Female 2: Angry, angry, disappointed, powerless

Moderator: Can you say a bit more about powerless?

Female 2: Because I’m complaining about one person’s care, but it’s the whole bigger picture, and it doesn’t filter through. Then you get chief execs saying there’s no problems in the NHS especially at the moment, it’s different for me because I worked there, but I feel powerless as a service user, yeah


The above extract from one of the focus groups demonstrates that there are a range of factors at play in this picture of frustration which the research shows. One of the simplest factors is the perceived or forthcoming effects of spending cuts. As the participant states, the list of services used in the groups were all subject to cut backs in the budget.

The fiscal constraints on public spending mean that it is essential that public expectations of what our levels of tax and spend can deliver need to be realistic. For this to happen, there will have to be a more positive cycle of communication established between national and local politicians, service deliverers and users. It is in this context that the issue of user ‘voice’ becomes important.

The final participant comment in the above extract is explicitly about user voice. The statement of feeling powerless is linked to the feeling that complaints about service don’t ‘filter through’. This focus group was asked to further explore the issue of power by asking them to discuss control and ownership of services. This prompted one participant to state that whilst he felt ownership of all public services, he felt in control of none of them.

Well I’d say there’s ownership of everything because you know your money’s paying for it all but there’s no power of control because you know at every election it doesn’t matter who you vote for in certain areas it’s guaranteed who’s going to get in whatever, so your vote doesn’t literally count. And even if it does count, the government, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Labour, Liberal or whoever, there’s so little difference between them. Nobody with extreme views who’s going to sort the country out is ever going to get in.

[Male, Carlisle]

This extract articulates a frustration with the failure of politicians to provide people with the feeling that through elected representation, we all have some degree of control over how services are run. It is here where a question about the nature of democracy is again grounded in thinking about how we improve public services. The cycle of communication between national and local politicians, service deliverers and users is clearly not felt to be functioning.

But there is a further reason to examine this broken cycle of communication and this is to do with people who don’t vote.

Non-voters as a group are of a substantial size and actually outnumbered those intending to vote Conservative at the time this research was carried out. Where 19 per cent of the overall survey were ‘satisfied’ with public services, for non-voters this was only 12 per cent. More strikingly, the answer ‘belongs to everyone’ being associated with public services scored 14 per cent across all respondents on average but only 6 per cent for non-voters.

This is a substantial group of the population who are not only less satisfied by public services, but feel significantly less ownership of services compared to the wider population. This is wrong. At a time when political disenchantment is so high and public services are under such strain, we must now use services to engage a wider public.

Those who choose not to vote are in many ways totally disconnected from political processes and as a consequence have little political power. If we consider how important the ability to influence and control your local environment is, political power is arguably often felt most at a local level. This would suggest that the range of people with a say over how services are run can be seen as an important end in itself. This is because it would involve more people in exercising political power beyond the (often untapped) right to vote.

In the group discussions, increasing the voice of service users in decision making emerged as a popular method for improving services. Participants were asked to justify why increasing the power of people to hold services to account would improve services. In this exchange one participant suggests that it is not only to improve services, but is actually important because it can unite people and help them feel a part of something.

Male 1: How does it make them better? Because the people who are using the services are having a direct say in how it’s run, and what I think they’ll want is having it run in a way that they think is going to benefit those people most.

Male 2: People should always be accountable for their actions shouldn’t they?

Female 1: But it unites as well, because we were talking about how we don’t feel part of anything, so people just sit back with their arms folded and let them get on with it.


The thread of user voice and improving the cycle of communication in public service delivery that emerges from the research points to a debate about citizenship and obligation in public services.

Citizenship, obligation and public services

Public services depend on public support. But they could increasingly come to depend on public participation. To foster this, it is important that we start to see a greater role for the public in holding services to account. Forthcoming research by the Association for Public Service Excellence has shown that public servants are keen to engage with public accountability processes but are increasingly frustrated by the lack of will on the part of the public to do so.

Part of the reason why this is so essential is that ongoing disengagement leads to a more atomised approach to debates around public services. This has the effect of undermining the collective ethos that underpins support for tax-funded public services. The nature of causality in this regard is complicated and unclear (do a disengaged public withdraw support for services or do poor mechanisms of service accountability act to lower public engagement?). Examining literature from political philosophy suggests that this state of affairs may be, in part, a result of our own relative success in creating wealth.

In a recent essay, Stuart White argues that the moderate wealth dispersed in advanced capitalist countries like the UK and the USA provide the conditions for people to retreat into their more private, family lives. This serves to create what he calls the “illusion of self-sufficiency”.

But wealth, of course, is not evenly distributed in such countries and the low levels of political engagement associated with the “illusion of self-sufficiency” serve to remove support for those who are most in need of state provision. White goes on to recommend, citing political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, that participation in local political bodies has the effect of reminding citizens of their interdependence and their collective responsibility.

This suggests that everyone benefits from a higher level of citizen participation in local decision-making. One of the chief criticisms of such an argument is that the nature of work and the pace of modern life preclude the ability of large groups of people to participate in such decision-making. But rather than being a reason to jettison a concern with citizen participation, this is a reason to question the high-stress, time-poor nature of life for the majority of working people in the UK.

In the long-term, action needs to be taken to address the nature of work in the economy. We have to ask ourselves if we want to live in a society where people do not have time to pursue active engagement in local decision-making. Keynes imagined that the 21st century would see advanced economic societies lower the time spent working to allow for more time spent in pursuit of activity such as citizen engagement. It would be wise to investigate the conditions that would allow such a reality to become feasible.

But in the short-term, how can a greater role for user voice in public service delivery be achieved in a way that is in tune with modern lifestyle constraints? The answer lies in the notion of obligation.

The notion of obligation as well as citizenship is found in the process of jury service in the UK. Since we all benefit from the effective running of the justice system and the democratic nature of trial by a jury of peers, the system of obligation for jury service is seen as legitimate. Furthermore, we give people time off work to participate. Building on the arguments outlined above, the idea of jury service can be applied to process of holding local services to account. These are referred to here as people’s panels.

If we all benefit from a wider participation in citizen decision-making, then is it not reasonable to suggest that people be obligated to engage in local political bodies? If the people were obliged to engage in local service accountability processes it would, at the very least, serve to remind those people of the interdependence and communal nature of service delivery. It may also have other positive consequences such as creating more realistic expectations of services. Through engaging with trade-offs, people would perhaps develop a greater understanding of some of the difficult decisions involved in delivering public services.

If we accept that citizenship and obligation are reasonable responses to the problems of frustration and powerlessness in relation to public services, what could this look like in practice?

Making it work: people’s panels

People’s panels could be an annual process which provides a forum for a group of local people (a different group each year) to take a broad view of services in their area with a view to holding those services to account. Local services would take it in turns over the period of around a week to present updates to a panel of local people. The participants would then be able to ask questions, having looked across all different areas of local services. After a week a final report would then be prepared, facilitated by local civil servants.

Participants would ideally be convened according to a selection process that mirrors that of juries convened to deliberate over trials in a court of law. Employers would be forced to make allowances for the time participants need to take part in this process, much like they do with current jury service. This would allow participants to have the time to actively engage in holding local services to account – the lack of spare time for a large group of people being a major drawback of existing structures of local democracy. Furthermore, the random selection process would decrease the chances that those who are richer in time resources, more confident or better educated being able to dominate and undermine the process.

The process would be somewhat complicated and have to be facilitated. This should happen independently of local party politics and produce an output for public dissemination, which would also go to local decision-makers for response and reflection. Such a new role for civil servants as facilitators is an idea which could be applied across government more generally.

The outcomes and recommendations of the people’s panels process would not be binding in terms of policy making but local decision makers would have to engage with the outputs and defend decisions that depart from recommendations.

Participation in these people’s panels would be difficult to get out of, much like legal jury services. There are a number of arguments in favour of such a system.

Firstly, by making local accountability processes compulsory, a sense of civic duty is arguably nurtured around the need to engage in such issues. This is a more realistic model of political participation than we currently have. Currently there are structures for local decision-making but people either do not have the time or may be put off by the nature of local politics.

Secondly, these people’s panels would be an institution where local people from different backgrounds would come together. This would strengthen local cohesion as those from a range of socio-economic backgrounds would be brought together to reflect on the services that exist to meet their shared needs and aspirations for their local communities. Granted, this would only happen for the people in the actual jury, but the process would involve the wider community, especially in the dissemination process. Furthermore, each year would see a new round of jury participants and their networks of local contacts would experience positive spill over effects from the process.

Thirdly, the ability of these people’s panels to look across different services would allow for a wide view that could enhance support for preventative services or other innovations that could eventually lead to cost savings. For example, there may be a recognition that treating obesity is proving a disproportionate drain on local services and that tackling this at cause through a different service (such as spending more on local health food initiatives) may save money in the long run. This would speak to repeated statements of the need for more ‘joined up services’. The need to look across services as opposed to thinking about individual areas in silos is one of the core arguments at the heart of the ‘ecological public health’ model advocated by Tim Lang and Geof Rayner.

As well as bringing people together and enhancing the ability of local people to influence decision-making, it is hoped that such a process would increase overall political participation. Engagement is contagious, and the symbolic power of convening accountability juries would have an arguably positive effect on local democracy. At the very least, it is another measure for local politicians to be held to account in what they intend to do to address the concerns of the panels’ final reports. Furthermore, by being obligated to take account of some of the difficult trade-offs involved in improving service delivery, it is likely that more people would be more inclined to appreciate the realities of political decision-making and understand the importance of playing a part in public life.


The tension between national standards and local democracy can, in some ways, be a false one: it is as unhelpful to suggest that local democracy will solve all issues of service delivery as it is to suggest that everything can be ordained from Whitehall. The extent to which different levers of policy-making are applicable will depend on the service and the circumstances.

There are strong egalitarian reasons for prioritising enhanced local democracy as a response to frustration with experiences of services. The ability to influence your local area is an expression of political power. Such power is something that those on the social democratic left should want to see widely dispersed and not concentrated amongst those who already experience greater access to decision-making structures. If we really value the dispersal of power in public services, then we should be bold about giving people time off work to participate.

Local democracy provides fertile territory for the left in carving out a coherent agenda on public service reform. Not only is public service reform an opportunity to engage people in local democracy, but this research crucially shows that such an approach is urgently needed.

[1] In April 2012, the Fabian Society conducted 9 hours of focus groups and commissioned a nationally representative survey with over 2000 respondents. The purpose of this research was to learn more about how people viewed public services. One of the many aspects investigated was how people talked about their experiences of public services. The list of options in the survey was drawn up after the focus groups. These options were designed to broadly reflect the kind of language used in the group discussions.


APSE, (Forthcoming),  Report on co-production in public services
Keynes, J.M. (1930), Economic possibilities for our grandchildren
Lang, T & Rayner, G. (2012), Ecological public health
Lawton, K & Gottfried, G. (2010), In-work poverty in the recession
Office for National Statistics. (2011), Hours worked in the labour market 2011
Penny J, J Slay & L Stephens. (2012),  Co-production catalogue, Nesta
White, S. (2012),  O’Neil & Williamson (Eds), Property owning democracy and republican citizenship. Chapter in ‘Property Owning Democracy’.

Aside from Fabian staff who commented on drafts the author would like to thank Patrick Diamond, John Hitchin and Jon Wilson for talking over some of the ideas in this report.

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