Citizen's Charter: some progress, could try harder: Simon Midgley looks at a report on the first and most famous of John Major's Big Ideas for improving things

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The Independent Online
YOU WILL be pleased to learn that the Meteorological Office is achieving 84 per cent accuracy in its 24-hour weather forecasts; that the average time spent waiting for a driving test fell to five-and-a-half weeks last year; and that the Inland Revenue now replies to 99 per cent of its correspondence within 28 days. However, 58 per cent of prosecution witnesses in Crown Courts still have to wait more than two hours to give evidence.

These are a few gleanings from the Cabinet Office's second annual report, published on Wednesday, charting the fate of the Prime Minister's first Big Idea, the Citizen's Charter, which celebrates its third anniversary this summer.

Launched with much brouhaha in July 1991, the charter, Mr Major said, would force public services to tell customers 'where they stand and what service they have the right to expect'; they would also be entitled to refunds and compensation for poor service.

Since then 38 charters - covering everything from British Rail, education, health, the courts and social security to the rights of council tenants - have been published and several more are in the pipeline.

Millions of pounds have been spent funding the Citizen's Charter Unit in Whitehall, which is responsible for promoting the scheme, and many millions more on publishing and distributing the charters. Acres of trees have been felled in order to publicise the initiative and thousands of civil servant hours spent on promoting it.

But has it worked? Have standards improved? Are trains more punctual? Civil servants more accessible? Hospital waiting lists shorter?

One of the difficulties in judging the success of the initiative, which is a 10-year programme, is that it is only two- and-three-quarter years old and there has been little independent study of its effectiveness.

Also, since the charter was launched it has become an ever-expanding portmanteau - concerned not just about improving the quality of public services but also incorporating the Government's privatisation programme and schemes for contracting out public work to private hands.

Proposals for health, transport, education and social 'reform' are being heralded as fruits of the charter initiative, rather than just parts of the Government's original manifesto subsequently incorporated into the relevant departmental legislative programmes.

However, William Waldegrave, the Minister of Public Service and Science, claimed in the Financial Times last week that there was 'real evidence' that the charters had raised standards. The rise in the number of first-class letters delivered on the next working day, from just under 80 per cent in 1989-90 to more than 90 per cent in 1993-94, was one example he cited.

He was provoked by an audit which discovered that, of the 15 charters for public services in England, only six offered financial compensation and five promised better service but did not set specific, measurable standards of performance.

Last August, the findings of a research survey into what people thought about the Citizen's Charter were presented in a very selective way, appearing to suggest that people thought public services were the same or getting better. Closer examination of the research revealed that most people felt that standards in BR, the NHS, council housing, the police and roads had shown no improvement or had got worse.

Similarly, last Wednesday a Cabinet Office press release claimed that among the initiative's achievements were that three out of four patients in England were now treated in hospital within three months of being put on a waiting list and almost everyone was being treated within a year. These claims may be true, but they are not promises made in the Patient's Charter and may have been true for some years. A key claim that waiting more than two years has all but disappeared is true, but there are suspicions that average waiting lists have grown as a result and less urgent operations are now being done before more urgent ones.

On schools, another achievement is said to be that all parents now receive a written report on their child's progress at least once a year. This may or may not be true, but what is certain is that 95 per cent of parents would have received such a report before the initiative anyway.

On Network SouthEast rail services, 11 out of 15 services were more punctual in 1993 than in 1992 and 10 out of 15 were more reliable. This appears to be true, although whether it can be exclusively credited to the charter initiative is much more debatable.

Phillip Cullum, policy manager of the Consumers' Association, says there is a danger that the initiative might be seen as a gigantic PR exercise for the Government, which would be a pity since there have been some successes. Some people might feel, he says, that 'basically what they are searching for is some good news to put out in a big bundle'.

One success, according to Rufus Barnes, secretary to the London Regional Passenger Committee, which represents users of London Transport services and BR services around London, is that London Underground has embraced the concept of improving services to the public with real enthusiasm and achieved some remarkable improvements.

The charter and a management review have resulted in measurable achievements in the past few years. In the latest review of performance over the four weeks ending on 29 January, he says, the Underground was meeting or exceeding most of its targets. For example, 95.7 per cent of passenger lifts were working at peak times, the number of incidents on the Northern Line where the delay was more than 20 minutes as a result of Underground faults was six compared with a target of 10, and the number of trains in service in peak periods was 98.7 per cent.

This, Mr Barnes adds, is in distinct contrast to BR, which has embraced the charter idea much less wholeheartedly.

Philip Wilks, of the Central Transport Consultative Committee, the statutory body representing rail users, says the charter has been 'a considerable spur' to concentrating management's mind on meeting targets or paying discounts and refunds. However, the targets allow BR a 3 per cent leeway on punctuality and 1 per cent on reliability without triggering the payback mechanism. 'We feel that that is wrong,' he says, 'and that a target should be a target.'

Ruth Evans, director of the National Consumer Council, says that the initiative is a good idea but warns that improvements to public service will not happen overnight and will cost money. 'One of the problems with the way the charter was launched was that a degree of cynicism set in because the expectations raised were well beyond what could be delivered. The charter was never going to be a recipe for revolution. It is a recipe for slow change to make improvements.'