David Cameron intends to put ‘people in charge’. From free schools and ‘John Lewis models’ for services, to abolishing ‘townhall fatcats’ and quangos, he is determined to scrap what he sees as crippling state structures. But as the ‘big society’ tagline is quietly dropped, we ignore his reforms at our peril. Rather than dismiss these as a proxy for cuts, progressives must set out what empowerment for all looks like.
Labour should challenge these policies because far from empowering citizens, they do the reverse. Under the mantra of ‘trust professionals’, the government is stripping out mechanisms for accountability and centralising power, not in the hands of elected officials but those who run them. Headteachers and doctors will be judge and jury of the services they oversee, as the government presumes they will automatically involve patients, staff and pupils in decision making. Whether academies, or Clinical Commissioning Groups, only Whitehall will have the formal ability to intervene if things go wrong.
The government’s approach rests on a myth that the primary influence anyone needs is choice; the ability to leave, be it a school or a doctor, and join another. It’s a philosophy that too often absolves providers of reacting to concerns, leaves most consumers frustrated as they are unable to sway services they already use and risks wasting money on those where users are disenfranchised.
It also fails to understand the value of voice, or connect with today’s patients, parents or pupils who expect, and profit from, more control over the services they use. The challenges our public services face increasingly involve the behaviour of users and their lifestyles. Thus, their direct involvement is critical to outcomes achieved. This cannot be secured through choice alone- it is also about the capacity to feedback experiences, ask for help and engage with professionals about how to secure the best outcomes for them.
The future relationships with services Labour offers citizens have to not only provide choice or voice, but also has to go beyond meetings, committees and elected officials as our default methods for collective participation in service design and delivery. That means being clear when participation isn’t appropriate – for example running an A&E – and being willing to give power away when it is critical, whether in local or national provision. From co-operative trusts managing schools or healthcare and allowing participatory budgeting for communities, to funding expert patient or parent groups to run programmes, we should embrace the potential these offer for citizens, staff and users to shape and deliver services. An effective alternative to Cameron’s plans cannot rest on a stout defence of the status quo. To meet the needs of modern Britain we must be the new champions of egalitarian devolution.