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For every unpublished, non-peer-reviewed study that claims to show how choice and competition raise standards, you can find many rebuttals that expose methodological and empirical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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder