When I, or someone I know, has a bad experience with a public service – or a stellar one for that matter – as a writer and reporter, I have a privileged outlet for blame or praise. Most people do not. Theirs is a choice between approaching some well-meaning, but user-unfriendly, organisation, such as the Patients Association – which does not seem to grasp that someone might want just to air an impression that could assist providers and users of the service – or returning to the very people responsible and negotiating an often labyrinthine complaints procedure.
The Care Minister, Paul Burstow, has now proposed a website, on the lines of the travel and hotel site TripAdvisor, where all care homes would be registered and people could record their comments. His reward was self-righteous outrage from all manner of vested interests, whose leitmotif was the abuses that occur on such review websites, when people write out of self-interest or malice. Of course, such abuses happen. But that does not stop me consulting Trip-Advisor, which can give a useful steer if you know nothing about a place or are looking from somewhere to stay. You have to treat it for what it is, a collection of personal perspectives.
I can see nothing whatever to be lost, and a great deal to be gained, by subjecting care homes, all branches of the NHS, and any other public service you want to name, to similar treatment. The key is simplicity – you have to be able to find the review box from the website's home page and record your comment without being subject to a passport-level ID check – and specificity: you must be able to name the actual institution and department, if not the specialist or carer concerned.
Is it not surprising – shocking even – that, despite widespread internet use, it's still so hard to use the web for comments on public services that other people can read? Also worth asking is why it had to be a minister, rather than the regulator, who proposed the service? The Care Quality Commission is in the firing line for the paucity of its visits and tick-box approach to care homes, while the school exam regulator, Ofqual, found itself in the dock last week over a newspaper exposé about courses run by exam boards that appear to help teachers game the system. Interviewed on the BBC Today programme, a smooth-talking Ofqual official was floored by only one question: Why didn't you think of this? – i.e. sending someone along to some of these courses. The same could apply to TripAdvisor-style reviews and care homes.
A six-volume spirit of our age
I've almost lost count of the people who have vouchsafed to me, unprompted, that they are reading Decline and Fall – not Evelyn Waugh's novel, but Gibbon's great treatise, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I divined two plausible explanations. The first, that it comes free on an e-reader, such as Kindle – which, in fact, I discovered, it almost does. The second, and more appealing, is that the choice is somehow symptomatic of the zeitgeist.
And this reminded me of my own flirtation with Gibbon's magnum opus. Posted to Moscow in the late 1980s, I started diligently on the first of six volumes. Unfortunately, events out-ran my reading, and within 18 months the Soviet Union was no more. What conclusion, I wonder, should be drawn from Gibbon's popularity now?