Public Services Management: Chartering a hotline for the citizen: The Government wants to promote a public service ethos, but people are still confused over whom to hold to account, says Liza Donaldson

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
THE QUEEN, paying tax for the first time from 7 April, will no doubt welcome the announcement earlier this month that, along with the rest of us, she can complain to a new tax referee being created as part of the Prime Minister's Citizen's Charter initiative.

Unlike the hoi polloi, however, she will no doubt know who to complain to about what, or at least have access to an adviser who does. Joe and Joanne Public, on the other hand, are, according to a survey by Research International launched as part of the same initiative, heartily confused about public services they pay tax for and private ones they buy.

The survey of 940 adults found one in five thought that the privately run National Westminster Bank and Abbey National building society were definitely a public service or utility. Privatised British Airways scored even higher - nearly three out of 10 were convinced it was still in the public domain as a public service.

And while the words 'national' and 'British' probably account for some of the confusion, the public was also extremely uncertain about which category several public sector government departments fitted into: 38 per cent were unsure whether the Benefits Agency was a public service or not, 31 per cent were unsure about driver test centres, 30 per cent about Customs and Excise, 28 per cent about the Department of the Environment, 27 per cent about the Passport Office and 25 per cent about the Inland Revenue.

Citizens who now have 30 national charters at their service and a plethora of local council ones, plus those for the privatised utilities of gas, water and electricity, were also ill informed about the main Charter itself. Only one in 10 claimed to know very much at all about it, with four out of 10 unable to describe it, except by name, and a small number, 6 per cent, claiming it was just a publicity stunt.

William Waldegrave, Citizen's Charter minister, hopes that his new telephone hotline for complaints and information - Charterline - will help. Costing up to pounds 1m, it expects to take 7,500 calls during its pilot period, running for six months from May in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire - a microcosm of the nation - which will, in turn, have a full service from next year.

But Mr Waldegrave admits: 'The whole campaign of getting basic information about who provides what you are paying for when you pay your taxes has a long way to go.' The message the minister wants to get across is that: 'The whole Charter campaign is saying that there is a special thing called a public service, that there is a public service ethos. What we are trying to do is define it by looking at it from the point of view of people using the service.'

However, it seems unlikely that ministerial words and the Charterline alone will clear up what appears to be a deep-rooted lack of public awareness about services the public pay for and, at election time, vote for or against. The pollsters Mori report that their findings over the years have shown that the public is also muddled about which tier of local government does what, often believing councils run the National Health Service.

Braintree council in Essex, which has a 24-hour complaints line, reports that the public turns to it over education and roads, both services provided by Essex County Council. Queries about the utilities are also directed at the council. The demand is met by publicising information about a broad variety of services, including utilities, on its public notice board. Staff dealing with the public at buildings like leisure centres are trained to deal with all complaints and queries. However, Charles Daybell, chief executive of Braintree, confesses: 'I am a bit sceptical about Charterline, because it does not clarify accountability for services'.

Leicester City Council carried out an extensive Mori poll to find out how successful its citizen's charter, launched in November 1991, had been. It emerged that more than half of respondents could not name any council service when asked which ones they would most like the charter to provide information about. More had heard of the council's A-Z services guide than the charter, and most wanted specific information in the charter such as phonelines and time scales.

Cambridge City Council, which monitors all the complaints it receives, found that in one month alone it had 1,100 complaints about a county council police scheme to crack down on illegal parking by towing away cars. It is producing a user's guide to its services for delivery to the public, with direct-dial phone numbers of its directors and contact names and numbers for the utilities, health, county council and voluntary services. But council chiefs see the reorganisation of local government into one tier, currently under way, as the only long-term solution to public confusion.

The Citizenship Foundation, an educational charity, is not surprised at the gap in people's knowledge about services they pay for. Although citizenship is one of five cross-curricular themes in schools under the national curriculum, it believes compulsory subjects dominate the timetable. 'Subjects like 'citizenship' become increasingly marginalised,' according to Jan Newton, co-director. She argues that schools should do more: 'If only you could get these concepts of citizenship across at an early age, I think there would be less crime.'

At Newell and Sorrell, specialists in corporate identities, there are no raised eyebrows that the public find it so difficult to distinguish public from private services. John Sorrell, chairman, says that given the changes in the last decade confusion is not surprising, but it is a serious matter. He says: 'We should not expect the public to be experts in this area. We should make it very easy for them to understand.' The Citizen's Charter, he adds, needs much more clarity in presentation. It is too obscure and abstract a concept despite being an excellent idea. It will be a tragedy if John Major's 'big idea' is not communicated clearly enough.

He suggests a symbol for public services - 'a beautiful red robin or a lovely red flower' - which staff working for public services could wear with pride, communicating a strong, warm, emotional message instead of a cold, bureaucratic one. After all, he says, 'Why should the health service not have as strong an identity as the Body Shop, one which people can relate to?'

Public confusion is seen as 'an understandable error' by Steve Bullock, chair of the Local Government Management Board. Mr Bullock, leader of Labour-controlled Lewisham council in south London, proposes that central government should run a major information campaign, getting people to register to vote and to know what they are voting for. He says: 'I think it is important that people know where their taxes are being spent. One of the problems is that we do not have a civic culture in Britain. Central government does not respect local government - I don't mean the party political divide. Central government regards local government as a necessary evil and therefore does not encourage local government to be self-confident and expand its vitally important democratic role.'

The French, he suggests, could teach us a lesson here, respecting public servants who have chosen to devote their lives to the common weal, instead of belittling them as bureaucrats.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments