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For every unpublished, non-peer-reviewed study that claims to show how choice and competition raise standards, you can find many rebuttals that expose methodological and empirical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.

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How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:


Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."


Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)


From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)


From: Gifts For Little Ones