Choice in public services: good policy, politically problematic, electorally useless

David Boyle has done an excellent job as the government’s independent reviewer into the use of choice in public services, as you might expect from one of the party’s most consistently original and rigorous policy thinkers.

The Barriers To Choice Review he has produced is packed full of good policy ideas which would help the most disadvantaged people, in particular, take more power over their lives and the services they depend on.

Good policy – and problematic politics, as David himself has written about over on Lib Dem Voice:

The word ‘choice’ itself divides people, even those who might otherwise agree on pretty much everything.

On one side there are those who believe it is a weasel word, designed to obscure a push towards privatisation.  On the other side, there are those who take the word at face value, but worry about the logistics.

Nobody seems to be quite agnostic about the idea, because – since the political establishment sometimes uses ‘choice’ and ‘competition’ interchangeably – this is often a proxy for an argument about competing service infrastructure.

Those in the ‘weasel words’ camp are far from few in number, and it means that talking about increase choice often has people rushing to their keyboards to send The Guardian a letter about how the government’s lurching to the right of Genghis Khan.

It’s an inaccurate but pervasive instinct, all the more unfortunate when you remember how many Liberal Democrat council groups picked up the idea of choice in order to fight for their residents against failing Labour-run councils which couldn’t manage basic services. Giving people a choice over who repairs the faulty boiler in their social housing – or even saying that if the council didn’t fix it promptly then the council must pay for it to be done privately – has worked well as a way of improving people’s lives and improving public services.

So it may appear that the way to overcome the clichés about choice is to focus on very specific policies with obvious appeal. Which is why I read through the details of David Boyle’s recommendations with interest.

And therein lies the electoral difficulty. The ideas in The Barriers To Choice Review are good. They are also – for want of a better wording – boring. Worthy but not the sort of stuff out of which you can fashion many leaflet headlines or news conference soundbites.

In other words, it’s a great report for ideas about how to govern successfully. It’s far less useful at providing a guide to what the Liberal Democrats could say at future elections is its approach to improving public services. Electorally successful messages need to be found elsewhere.




2 responses to “Choice in public services: good policy, politically problematic, electorally useless”

  1. Thank you Mark for such a thoughtful write-up. I don't think I've ever been accused of being rigorous before! You are quite right that it was a report for the government about making choice work in practice, not a report for a political party about how to make an issue out of choice. But I'm not sure I completely agree that these are not the basis of a political shift as well. Giving people the Right to Request Service Flexibility – if they are being put to be by their service provider at 5pm, for example – is potentially a change that could make services feel very different. In periods of austerity, when no political party has money they can spend unrestrained on services, it is this kind of improvement – that can save money and transform effectiveness – that we need. But you are right that, as it stands, it is a policy-maker's solution – it requires political language to set it on fire.

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