User choice is a top priority for Blair

18 Mar 04
Choice will play a central part in the next phase of public service reform, opening up services to greater influence from users, according to one of the prime minister's chief advisers.

19 March 2004

Choice will play a central part in the next phase of public service reform, opening up services to greater influence from users, according to one of the prime minister's chief advisers.

Speaking at the launch of a New Local Government Network report on choice and the public sector, Wendy Thomson, head of the Office of Public Services Reform, said choice was at the top of Tony Blair's agenda and central to his vision to deliver universal services that are personally tailored.

Thomson said the introduction of increased choice had a short-term tactical purpose, encouraging innovation and opening services up to demand from users. 'Local government has the greatest scope for innovation in this area because of its local connections and the degree to which it has the speed of response to make things happen locally,' she said.

'In its provision of a wide range of services, local government is more than well placed to make the most of the choice agenda and shift to a more customer-driven approach.'

The NLGN report, published on March 16, examines the risks and opportunities created by the extension of choice in the public sector. Case studies, including direct payments for community care and choice-based lettings, show that this can result in a more equitable service, granting freedoms to the poor that had previously only been available to the rich. But it warns that choice does not always equal greater equity.

The report's author, Adam Lent, said: 'Choice is neither all good nor all bad but a great deal of thought needs to go into the design and implementation if opportunities are to be maximised and risks minimised.'

This view was echoed by former social security and Home Office minister Angela Eagle. Speaking at a fringe event at the Labour Party conference in Manchester last week, Eagle said there needed to be a debate about the contexts where choice was most appropriate.

'I actually support the idea of active empowerment in public services but we're in a very primitive stage,' she said. 'It's difficult to get people involved but you have to build from the bottom up and demonstrate that active involvement can change things.'

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