The problem with public service "choice"

Choice without the capability to exercise drives a pernicious wedge between some users and others.

"Brick by brick, edifice by edifice, we are slowly dismantling the big-state" says Prime Minister David Cameron. In its place will be, if not the much-maligned "big society", then, well what exactly? If Tony Blair’s mantra going into the 1997 General Election was "education, education, education," Cameron’s fixation can be summed up as  "choice, choice, choice."

In criticising Cameron’s choice of strategy to raise standards in schools, hospitals and other public services, I don’t intend to defend the status quo. Of course there’s significant room for improvement, there always is. Nor do I seek to deny that in some cases non-state providers may be able to augment state provision where the latter is clearly failing. But in striving to raise standards we must ask whether the reforms being brought in are the right reforms, whether they’re likely to deliver said higher standards, and if so for whom.

In launching the next phase of the government’s Open Public Services programme, the PM asserts that in giving service users a choice between providers will give them control over how they experience the service and give the providers competitive pressure to up their game. The trouble is, this assertion is just that; there is very little evidence that choice and competition in themselves lead to higher standards in public services, and what little evidence that exists is of remarkably poor quality.

For every unpublished, non-peer-reviewed study that claims to show how choice and competition raise standards, you can find many rebuttals that expose methodological and empirical flaws. Take the now infamous studies claiming that competition for elective surgery (indexed not by a measure of choice itself but by geographic density of hospitals, a poor proxy at best) improves outcomes in mortality from heart attacks (through an unspecified mechanism); the papers show weak statistical correlations at best, not a causal relationship, and yet they’re unquestioningly cited as evidence that “hospitals in more competitive areas perform better on quality and efficiency than those in less competitive ones.”

The standard practice for resolving such a lack of clarity as to whether X (in this case the existence of patient choice in where they’re treated) causes Y (higher standards of care) would be to conduct a trial: give some patients choice, measure (and this is crucial) whether they actually exercise said choice, and see whether their medical outcomes are better than a group of patients from whom choice is withheld. I’m not the first to call for well-controlled trials of social policy (doctor and health writer Ben Goldacre is amongst those who have), but in the absence of reliable evidence to date, surely there ought to be trials to show just how effective choice can be in driving up standards?

Cameron makes more than an empirical error in promoting choice, however; his “instinctive belief” (sic) that consumers – or citizens as we used to be called – exercising choice in an open market will drive up performance and productivity results from a confused view of what constitutes a public service in the first place. The confusion is laid bare in Benedict Brogan’s defence of the Tory perspective on public service reform; Brogan reveals more than he perhaps intended when he says that under the proposed system of choice in services, the consumer "will be given the same kind of protections in his dealings with the public sector that he enjoys when he buys a television set or books a holiday."

With great power comes great responsibility, Peter Parker was told; well, under the Open Public Services regime, with Great Choice comes Great Voice – the corollary to choice of provider is voice to complain, transparency of data and help in finding out how to raise your voice, so to speak. All good things in themselves and fine if you’re buying a TV or booking a holiday, a robust complaints procedure might make TV makers or airlines up their game – but outcomes from public services are often only apparent several years down the line (think schools and healthcare for chronic conditions), at which point it’s too late for a complaint to the market regulator to make a difference. If the government is indeed to become more a commissioner in a market than a provider, as is Cameron’s intention, then if voice alone is the consumer’s redress then we must accept a widening in outcomes for those able to exercise both choice and voice, and those who are less capable.

And that’s the key. It’s a crass philosophical mistake to conflate public services – that deliver public good by pooling peoples’ risk, purchasing power and the benefits they get in ways that enrich society as a whole – with transactional goods that we consume largely for our own individual benefit. Cameron remains convinced that choice is the way to promote better services – but choice without the capability to exercise it is just a pernicious wedge driven between those comfortable enough to travel large distances and research their options and those who need good public services local to them. Choice, choice, choice says the PM – excellence, equity, evidence, say I.

Prateek Buch is head of policy and research for the Social Liberal Forum

David Cameron launches The Big Society Capital fund at The London Stock Exchange on April 4, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Prateek Buch is director of the Social Liberal Forum and serves on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.