Bridget M Ogilvie: The public wants it both ways, to our cost

From the Dainton Lecture at the British Library, given by the chair of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science

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The public is in a state of confusion concerning how best to protect its interests. People resent being told what to do by the state or by anyone in authority, but they often listen to campaigning groups. Deference is no longer a national characteristic. We all insist that we be allowed to do our own thing, and to develop our own values and moral standards. We expect to live in an environment that delivers what we want immediately with complete reliability - an attitude fuelled by customer/patient charters - and we want to make our own choices and thus are intolerant of regulations that stop us doing what we want to do.

The public is in a state of confusion concerning how best to protect its interests. People resent being told what to do by the state or by anyone in authority, but they often listen to campaigning groups. Deference is no longer a national characteristic. We all insist that we be allowed to do our own thing, and to develop our own values and moral standards. We expect to live in an environment that delivers what we want immediately with complete reliability - an attitude fuelled by customer/patient charters - and we want to make our own choices and thus are intolerant of regulations that stop us doing what we want to do.

At the same time, we expect to live in a risk-free environment and we are more risk averse than ever. Strangely, while we as individuals may have developed this selfish view of life, we expect our fellow citizens who work in the public service to do their job in an increasingly regulated environment and thus to have a totally different world view, to suppress their own rights and needs and to accept the responsibility to deliver services that solve the nation's problems and are free of risk. Clearly, these life views are incompatible and we need to find a way to persuade people that life simply can't be risk free. Progress and change inevitably involve risk. We need to wake up to the fact that those who deliver public services have the same life view as the rest of us and have rights as well as responsibilities - some give and take is necessary.

The public interest is managed and implemented in large part by the professions - and they have been and remain subject to continual challenges, changes and demands. None of us can avoid change or challenge, but I want to argue that the unceasing and ever increasing demands on the professions - many of which involve asking them to reduce or even prevent risks - and the way they are promoted and imposed is leading to exhaustion, both physical and mental, disillusionment and demoralisation. Many professions are now becoming unattractive and this is resulting in a decline in the quality of recruits. This cannot be in the public interest.

I too am a member of a profession and I have to say that to some extent, my generation brought all this on ourselves. The world in which I have my professional roots, is education and academia, and I am aware that as a result of the "never had it so good" atmosphere of the Sixties and early Seventies and the ideologies that this promoted, we all became pretty arrogant and forgot that our primary job was to deliver what the public was paying us to do - well-educated children and undergraduates and cost effective research. We were (and remain) highly vocal in demanding more inputs and we were careless of outputs. We were arrogant in our dealings with our customers. So I have to say, I think we deserved some of what government administrations of the past couple of decades have done to us.

Governments responded to their perception that the public was not getting value for money by demanding more and better and proven outputs - accountability with transparency - while keeping down or reducing inputs in real terms. At the same time, with the enthusiastic support of the media, they have to penalised, increasingly publicly, those who fail or even under perform in terms of output targets.

Requirements are laid down and imposed centrally, usually in the name of what is best for the customer, but frequently driven ideologically. Thus, the pendulum has swung too far from over emphasis on inputs to over emphasis on outputs. If we believe that it is in the public interest to have high-quality people to ensure we have high-quality professions, we must look at how we might achieve a balance between inputs/outputs and the rights versus the responsibilities of customers versus professionals.

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