PM looks for fresh contract between citizen and state

18 Jan 07
Tony Blair this week called for a wholesale renegotiation of the contract between the citizen and the state as he launched the next phase of his root-and-branch review of public policy.

19 January 2007

Tony Blair this week called for a wholesale renegotiation of the contract between the citizen and the state as he launched the next phase of his root-and-branch review of public policy.

The prime minister argued it was crucial to 'update' the relationship, based on a new recognition by both sides of their rights and responsibilities.

This meant grappling with difficult questions about the extent to which the state should be involved in individuals' lives and the nature of that interaction.

Blair, launching a major public consultation on these issues on January 15, made it clear he was staking the future of his public service reforms on the conclusions.

Last October he set up six policy reviews, staffed by ministers and senior Whitehall officials, to formulate ten-year plans on a string of key public and foreign policy issues.

'The debate we want to have is right at the heart of the next phase of service change,' he said at the launch. 'In every other walk of life people are exercising a far greater degree of power and control over their lives. We have to make sure the same is true of public services.'

The consultation, which will include citizens' forums being held across the country, is intended to answer three main questions.

These are: what public services need to do to achieve a 'step-change in customer care'; how far the state can and should shape citizens' behaviour and to what extent it should be left up to individuals and local communities; and what the future relationship between state and citizen should be.

Blair gave as an example a shift towards greater data-sharing between different government departments. He said such a move had the potential to make interaction between the state and the individual easier, and he sought to allay fears that it would lead to Big Brother government.

'The purpose is not to create a new database, the purpose is to make sure that people get a better quality of service. This is about sharing data in a sensible way so that the customer gets a better service,' he said.

Research conducted by Ipsos Mori Social Research and published on January 15 revealed contradictory attitudes among the public towards the government.

While 61% agreed that 'the government should do more to protect people by passing laws that ban dangerous activities', 62% believed that 'the government does not trust people to make their own decisions about dangerous activities'.

Meanwhile, 51% said public services have not lived up to their expectations, up from 40% in 1998.

Ben Page, chair of IMSR, said the results highlighted the inherent difficulties in the relationship between the state and the public. 'It's like looking after a teenager. They rebel against the parent figure but also don't want to be left to sort it all out themselves.'

Page said that IMSR, which will be running the citizens' forums, would try to get to grips with these inconsistencies during the consultation period. It will test the public's attitudes towards greater variation in local public services, and the degree to which they want personalised public services. IMSR will deliver its conclusions to the government in March.

Blair, while admitting there were no easy answers, said it was vital that the empowerment of individuals and frontline professionals was at the heart of future public service reforms.

'We have to get to a point at which the citizen… if they're getting a bum service, have the ability to go somewhere else for that service,' he said.

'We have to be careful we don't end up with a top-down instruction from government about how to be more empowered.'

But Kay Carberry, assistant general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, warned against dismantling the distinctive ethos of the public sector. 'The public has a very deep commitment to the ethos of public services. We shouldn't focus too much on their role as individual customers, because they see themselves as citizens too.'


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