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For every unpublished, non-peer-reviewed study that claims to show how choice and competition raise standards, you can find many rebuttals that expose methodological and empirical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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.