Tony Wright: John Major was right about a Citizen's Charter

It took a Brixton boy to grasp that reform meant users knowing what the state promised to deliver
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The Independent Online

The argument about public service reform has become stuck. It is time for a new direction that really does put public service users in the driving seat. This involves a radical break from the top-down managerialism of targetry that has been used as a kind of shock therapy for public services. It means a shift from targets to rights, and goes beyond the language of choice.

People are entitled to know what they can expect for the money they pay for their public services, in as precise a way as possible, and to know what happens if such expectations are not fulfilled. Public services represent a contract between the state and its citizens, and the terms of that contract need to be specified more explicitly than is presently the case. What I propose, in a new Fabian pamphlet, is that this can be done through a system of Public Service Guarantees (PSGs), involving a shift from deliverer to user, and from targets to entitlements.

In some ways, what is proposed carries on where the Major government's Citizen's Charter programme left off. That was a first attempt to begin to specify what the state was promising to public service users. At the time, Labour could not decide whether to dismiss it as a cosmetic irrelevance or to claim authorship of it in local government, so it did both.

The programme was certainly full of confusion, on which it eventually floundered, as it struggled to decide whether it was about standards and entitlements or aims and aspirations. It therefore raised expectations without being able to meet them, while its purpose was clouded by its association with a wider political project to diminish the public sphere. Yet for all that, it took a Brixton boy to grasp that public service reform involved users knowing what the state promised to deliver, and not just in the generalised way in which this was usually described.

This is what the proposal for Public Service Guarantees does in a more systematic way, across the board. It starts with the user, not the provider, and spells out what service entitlement exists in as precise a way as possible. We should develop published PSGs for all services, together forming a citizen's handbook of entitlements. Merely bringing together existing entitlements - for example, to free education until 18, or most health care without payment - would provide a formidable inventory of what the tax-funded state provides for its citizens.

However, the challenge now is to go further and, wherever possible, to convert such general guarantees into more specific statements about service availability and quality. A guarantee to a poor service is not a guarantee worth having.

It is not enough to specify entitlements unless it is clear what happens if they are not met. In this sense, they are triggered by service failure. When a patient cannot be treated within a guaranteed period, then there should be an ability to go elsewhere for treatment and, if necessary, have it paid for. There are already moves in this direction in the NHS. The task is to extend these within the NHS, but also to apply the principle to other services. If the state cannot provide a guaranteed service, then it should provide the money to provide the service.

This approach differs from universal voucher schemes because it is not aimed at providing subsidised pathways out of public services. The purpose is to strengthen user attachment to public services by, as far as possible, explicitly guaranteeing what they provide. Only where there is failure to provide a guaranteed service would the question of redress or alternative provision arise. New providers would have the opportunity to respond to failures, not to undermine success. This approach complements, from the user end, all that the Government is already doing to improve the performance and capacity of public services. The more that the Government's programme is successful, then the more solid will be the service guarantees that it is able to give.

Moreover, far from weakening the fiscal role of the state in relation to public services, it serves to strengthen it, for the pressure will be on governments to fund services to a level that underpins the service guarantees (or to fund alternatives in cases of failure). In this way, Public Service Guarantees would promote the effective exercise of choice as a means of improving public service delivery.

This proposal for service guarantees will not commend itself to two groups of people. It will be disliked by those on the right, for whom the ideological task is to roll back public provision of key services. They will not be attracted to an approach that has the potential to strengthen attachment to public services through a more explicit kind of contract. Equally, the proposal will not appeal to those on the left who are content simply to defend the state against the market, or to argue for more taxes and higher spending, but who dislike attempts to insist that the services provided by the state should be assessed in terms of their performance for users.

It should appeal to all who believe in the principle of public provision, as an arena of non-market equity, but who also want to know what they can actually expect for their money.

The writer is Labour MP for Cannock Chase. His pamphlet 'A New Social Contract: From Targets to Rights in Public Services' is published by the Fabian Society on 8 March