Public services for the people or by them?

“FT/Harris poll shows… only a quarter of Britons agreed they should be “encouraged to give up some of their time to help support public services, including healthcare education and policing”.

What is the best way to deliver public services in these straightened times? Whether by the ‘big society’ or the ‘big state’, all political parties see a greater role for the public, and offer grand visions of mutualism, cooperatives and public ‘ownership’. In the name of more democracy, voluntary groups are being called upon to mend what technocratic politicians have broken. In this way, money will be saved, trust restored and cynicism overcome. What used to be publicly funded services, run by professionals, will now rely on volunteers and increasingly impoverished citizens.

This is an extraordinary conception of democratic engagement. It presents us with a stark choice between elitist and ineffectual management – where contempt for the public is rife (the ‘big state’) – and a fragmented, privatised and under-resourced public sector dominated by special and private interests (the ‘big society’). Thankfully, however, there is something between authoritarian abuse and chaotic neglect.

Public services require expertise and careful management. So must they be responsive to local needs and legitimate in the eyes of the public. Services need significant public input into the setting of purposes and values, and regular public evaluation to ensure such ends are met. Public engagement must therefore occur regularly and meaningfully in the design and evaluation of service provision. But these services are still to be delivered by managers, professionals and skilled workers.

In a democracy, the public is sovereign. It chooses its agents to run public services in its name. We already paid for the training of professionals, and we pay again for them to do their jobs. Democracy does not mean DiY public services. It means public managers have to provide services that accord with the principles and values given them by the public. If they do not meet these standards, they should face informed public scrutiny and the harshest of sanctions.

The recent FT/Harris poll confirms what Declan McHugh, of the Hansard Society, has already established: that there is a yawning gap between what people demand in terms of political participation, and what they are actually willing to undertake themselves. Yet what if we were engaged not to run public services, but to inform and check on them? What if resources were available for deliberative public meetings to agree on basic values, outputs and outcomes of specific services? What if the performance of our public managers was regularly scrutinised by citizen assemblies, with payment for lay expertise and real sanctions for those who do not do our bidding? We already do jury duty, where the state manages to serve us tea and reimburse our wages. Why not use some of our own public funds to similarly enable the democratisation of public services? Such a project calls on managers to work with the public. It requires them to manage, but to do so democratically. Democratic management is the simplest of ideas, combining as it does elements of democracy and management. Yet it is notoriously difficult to implement, particularly where a cult of leadership continues to pretend the two are mutually exclusive.

Whatever is concealed behind the ‘big society,’ it demands of public managers that they engage their publics in the delivery of services, if only because the cuts mean there will be no other provision. Somehow, they must cut budgets, fulfill their responsibilities and devolve power. If services collapse, they are exposed to the chill wind of public approbation. For this reason, no public manager should make such cuts alone. They should demand the support of their publics, without which they will be vilified for the destruction they are being forced to reap. Their situation thus needs vision, the empowerment of service users, structures for participation and deliberation and the provision of accurate information. Managers could value and build on the many unheralded innovations by dogged public sector workers who work democratically despite their authoritarian managers. Democratic management means asking the public – and when the public hides, teasing them out. But it is still management. As such, however, it would for the people rather than by them.