The user-friendly way to win power: Citizens' charters are spreading, and there is more to them than PR, argues Sarah Benton

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AMID THE end-of-term parliamentary drama of Maastricht, the second anniversary of John Major's other great idea - the Citizen's Charter - passed almost unnoticed. Yet, in spite of initial public scepticism of the notion, in two years charterism has gained a Cabinet minister, a unit of 27 staff in the Office of Public Service, and colonies of charter officials in every government department. Since June it has had a Complaints Task Force, under Baroness Wilcox of the National Consumer Council. It has so far produced 36 direct offspring, from the Parent's Charter to the Ulsterbus Passenger's Charter (the singular apostrophe is making a point: no collective action here); plus a host of hybrids in banks, charities and local authorities. If such charters are mere pieces of paper, what explains their spread?

First, they help government. Charters offer improved service at little extra cost. By May this year, compensation payments for breaches of charters came to more than pounds 3m ( pounds 1.9m from British Rail). But as a management tool, charters are cheap at the price. Charter standards ('Courteous and helpful service from public servants who will normally wear name badges') can only be met if staff are required to behave differently. From the remote Office of Public Service, charters can control the front-line workers. This new, user- friendly method of disciplining the workforce - how else could you insist that staff smile all day? - is a management coup d'etat.

Second, charters offer a simplified form of recourse to public law. While the most active citizens spurn charters as just an exercise in concealing welfare gaps, many are cautiously discovering a value in this approach to public services. The listed rights have a quasi-legal status and they are simplified. If you want to know what rights you have in relation to schools or the Benefits Agency (which, after British Rail, has paid out the most in compensation), then the charters set them out in readable form.

And now there is a Charterline information service, courtesy of IBM, to help the impatient. (Still in experimental form, in two months it has dealt with 2,500 queries about state services. Compare this, however, with the entrenched notion of rights to good service in Marks & Spencer, where the customer services department receives 3,000 letters and 2,000 phone calls a week).

Third, charters enhance the dignity of the user. Consumer rights in the health service may seem a vulgarisation of the noble good of health care, but a change in status from humble supplicant to customer with rights is a gain. What most people hate in the health sevice is cavalier and disrespectful treatment. Commenting recently on the record level of complaints about the health service, William Reid, the Health Service Commissioner, said that the majority of them began as gripes about rudeness and poor communication. But there is more than an exercise in state management or market choice here. Government is also responding to a profound discontent that existed long before the birth of charterism. If complaints have shot up with the introduction of charters and watchdogs - as they have - this is because previously people were mired in a state of civic helplessness.

The effort to 'empower' citizens with rights has its roots in a melange of radical thinking that defies party boundaries. From the new right comes the view that state services are always hijacked by the workforce to run for its own benefit. Charters give 'voice' to the users, as an alternative to the 'exit' (to a competitor) that private companies offer. These terms were coined by the American economist Albert Hirschman, and adopted by Lord Skidelsky and the SDP during the Eighties. Another intellectual ancestor is the influential book Reinventing Government by Ted Gaebler and David Osborne, two American former leftists with an abiding dislike of public sector unions. It may have been this last facet that endeared them to Mr Waldegrave; at any rate, Mr Gaebler was a speaker at a Charter Unit two-day conference last December.

Charters, then, are a recognition that the old social contract between people and government has broken down; and that national political parties no longer provide the link between people and state that was one of their raisons d'etre. Face to face with the state, parties cannot act for the citizen. Much of the time, parties are the state. The consequence appears to be, at best, a disillusion with politics, at worst an anomie, that exists throughout the developed world. Politics, as defined by mainline parties, does not give citizens power.

There are many reasons why parties no longer act effectively for us. One obvious one is that they divide the whole adult population roughly into two or three parts and devote much of their energy into holding all the people in their part together. A party cannot act on the particular needs of a particular group of that party, especially when it might be in conflict with another section; for instance, bus users and bus drivers, patients and consultants. Such conflicts cause inertia in parties as well as state departments.

Faced with ineffective parties, political activists may turn to a group with a single purpose, such as the Keep Sunday Special Campaign. Countries with the fewest parties tend to have the most self- help and direct action groups. Britain is bursting with them - a salutary riposte to the image of a nation suffocating in apathy.

But direct action has its limits. It requires a local target - a Twyford Down, a threatened post office or hospital - that generates a lot of spontaneous energy. And local groups can collapse, defeated by bureaucracy, which is designed to withstand any amount of popular protest.

But bureaucracies do have a weak point: they cannot stand out against the law. Once an order is made it has to be obeyed, even though people may, and do, die while waiting for a legal protest to be resolved. This may be by judicial review - demands for which have grown phenomenally in the last few years - or through the European Court of Justice. The increase in legal challenges reflects a growing popular recognition that if you want to challenge power you have to burrow into the innards of administration where decisions get made.

We are moving, then, from being party supporters to being users with rights. This new status gives citizens a voice against the state. Pursuing rights as users is for people who find the national political arena of Parliament and party conference irrelevant, and who prefer to sidestep such showy circuits for areas that offer real power. In a world where your local hospital may be kept going by charitable donations, where parents pay for their children to have school books, where some streets are patrolled by vigilantes, and 'friends' stock the park with plants - where, in short, the public good depends precisely on direct action - user rights begin to usurp political parties.

The writer is investigating patients' rights for the Institute for Public Policy Research.