Christina Patterson: I want value for money for my taxes

It's important because the things it's talking about are things like what treatment you get if you have cancer
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The Independent Online

Whatever else you say about some of the employees at the News of the World, you can't really accuse them of not going the extra mile. You can't really accuse them of lacking energy or drive. You could, I suppose, if you wanted to be generous, describe them as "passionate and inspired".

You could also, I suppose, describe some of the bankers who made up little packages of products they didn't understand, and sold them on to other people who didn't understand them, and then to other people who didn't understand them, until the little packages blew up in their faces, as "passionate and inspired". And the managers at Southern Cross who decided to sell off the care homes it owned, and rent them from new landlords, so that shareholders could make a killing. But I'm not sure that you could say with absolute confidence, as David Cameron, or whoever wrote the new White Paper on "Open Public Services", did, that "most public sector staff are passionate and inspired".

I'm not sure that I would describe the receptionist at my doctor's surgery, who seemed to take quite a lot of pleasure in telling me that the doctor was too busy to see me, after I'd collapsed at home the day after an operation, or the nurses on the ward who seemed to spend a lot of time bitching about the patients, or the gardeners who told my friend, on his first day working for the council, that they started the day with breakfast at a caff, which seemed to lead into coffee, and then lunch and then tea, as "passionate and inspired". I think these people could have been a little bit more passionate and inspired, though perhaps not quite as passionate and inspired as the people at the News of the World, or in the banks, or at Southern Cross. But I think when people say in White Papers that people are "passionate and inspired", what they mean is "there are an awful lot of you, and I'd like you to vote for me".

I think what they probably also mean, and particularly when they're talking about making very big changes to the area you work in, when they're talking, in fact, about breaking it up into little pieces, and encouraging other people to do the work you do, that you're not nearly passionate or inspired enough. Or maybe that you're passionate and inspired about the wrong things: tea breaks, say, or pensions, instead of, say, value for money, or speed.

"Open Public Services: a White Paper" isn't, I think even its authors would have to admit, as entertaining as the News of the World. It isn't entertaining even when you work in the private sector, in an industry which may or may not be collapsing, and with no pension to speak of, in an office where 9-5 would feel like knocking off mid afternoon, but I think it's probably even less entertaining when you work in the public sector. I think that phrases like "finding ways to deliver better services for less money" and "opening up the delivery of those services to new providers" wouldn't really cheer you up.

But if it isn't entertaining – if it is, in fact, so unentertaining that it makes you fall asleep on your sofa, and almost break your laptop – it is pretty damn important. It's important because the things it's talking about are things like what kind of treatment you get if you have cancer, and whether your child will learn to read and write, and whether there are policemen around to help you if you're robbed. It's important because we all need things like this, and also because we pay for them.

It's always important what kind of treatment you get for cancer, and whether your child learns to read and write, and whether there are policemen around to help you if you're robbed, but it's even more important when there's been a global economic crisis, and the country has a big deficit, and you're having to spend an awful lot of taxpayers' money just to pay interest on the debt. At a time like this, which is also a time when nobody seems to want to pay much tax, it would be quite strange for a government to say that the best thing to do would be to carry on with everything exactly as it was before, which sometimes meant spending millions and millions of pounds on things that didn't work.

It sometimes meant, for example, spending millions of pounds on IT programmes that didn't work, and on school building programmes that went massively over budget, and on tax credit schemes that kept making mistakes. It sometimes meant making contracts with private companies, and not reading the contracts properly, so that government departments were forced to let private companies supply services to them at a very high price for years. It sometimes even meant spending billions on aircraft that can't even fly into war zones, and aircraft carriers you can't use and don't need. But quite a lot of the time it just meant not really bothering all that much, and not really caring about things like budgets, and not really worrying if other people didn't do very much, and hoping that they wouldn't worry if you didn't either.

For quite a lot of people, that was fine. For the people who worked in the public sector, who had steady, reliable jobs, with steady, reliable benefits and pensions, that was fine. For the people who believed that the important thing was for the state to provide, even if it didn't do it all that efficiently, because it gave them a nice, warm feeling, and in any case they lived in an area where the public services were quite good, that was also fine. For poor people, who nearly always get the worse public services, and people who don't earn very much, and don't want to see their precious taxes spent on IT programmes that don't work, or even on other people's very long tea breaks, it wasn't.

I, too, like the idea of a state that provides. I don't want to see the public sector broken up. I don't want to see people lose their jobs. But I think too many people, or perhaps I mean too many people on the centre-left, have given too much attention to the six million public-sector workers in this country, and not enough to the 23 million private-sector workers who pay their salaries, and their pensions, and use their services. And it's hard to argue to these people that services shouldn't be opened up to "alternative providers" if "alternative providers" can do a better job for less.

If the "Open Public Services" White Paper doesn't read much like the News of the World, it does read a little bit like the Gettysburg Address. There's a lot in it about freedom, and equality, and openness, and democracy. It isn't all that clear how we're going to get this freedom, and equality, and openness, and democracy. It sounds to me as if we're all going to have to spend an awful lot of time poring over pie charts.

I don't want to pore over pie charts every time I want my rubbish collected, or need to book a cervical smear. I don't want to have to elect representatives for all my local services. I already have and it's called a council. But I do want my council to spend my council tax more wisely, and I do want the Government to spend my income tax more wisely, and I do want my parks looked after by people who can be bothered to get out of their van. If this means bringing more business nous into the public sector, and people who understand things like contracts, and things like risk, and if it even means that some people have to compete against other people, then so be it. Passion and inspiration can be lovely, but I'll settle for a job well done.