Time for a public service renaissance

25 Jun 18

Let’s end the commodification of our public services and start valuing them as public goods that serve the interest of society, argues John Tizard.

Changing procurement led to a deal that is good for people, animals, the environment – and a local authority’s finances

Credit: iStock


Discourse about our public services all too often fails to appreciate, let alone value, their societal, communal and economic importance.

This failure commonly leads to services – even health, education and policing – being regarded as commodities and treated as consumable goods, with their value being evaluated solely in monetary terms.

Wider societal and economic contributions are often downplayed or even ignored in favour of a simplistic and narrow consideration of the impact on individual service users.

This approach makes it easier for those who wish to promote the marketisation of core public services or propose that individual service users should pay directly for them rather than collectively through taxation.

Thankfully, there are signs that there is an increasing pushback to such approaches.

Some local authorities are realising that public services can and do help to build local community wealth.

Some authorities are bringing their previously outsourced services back into public ownership and management – and are doing so in ways that mean that these services and their staff can play a wider role in contributing to the public interest and community well-being.

This is why the voluntary and community sectors are playing an increasing role in public service delivery, in many cases being liberated from contractual straitjackets in order to innovate and deliver what the community needs and chooses.

Effective public services should both be efficient and secure excellent outcomes for the community as well as direct users.

Effective public services should both be efficient and secure excellent outcomes for the community as well as direct users.

Every part of society and our economy relies on high-quality public services delivering excellent outcomes.

This includes, for example the contribution that schools make to enabling young people to have the confidence to become active citizens, and gaining the knowledge, skills and capacity to deploy the enquiring intellect that all employers require.

Businesses need healthy workforces, good transport infrastructure, the protection of the police and other emergency services, and a public sector that will regulate and negotiate in order to foster conditions that enable commerce to flourish.

The fact is that every public service has a wider societal and economic impact – and this should be recognised and celebrated.

This means that, provided the tax system and its application are regarded as fair and progressive, we should all be willing and proud to pay taxes.

It is a strange irony, then, that the UK is currently taxed at a relatively low level compared with countries with stronger economies and better public services.

Seen in that light, surely there is a strong case for higher taxation on businesses and those with the highest income and the most wealth – and a very strong case for collecting all tax that is owed and cracking down on avoidance and evasion.

There is a case for wider reform of the tax system to achieve greater equality and to pay for excellent public services, and this may require more from the richest.

Inevitably, that case will be stronger and more easily made if it is clearly linked to a consistent narrative and definition of public services as community and economic goods.

And that narrative will be much more compelling if those making the case also demonstrate an equal commitment to improve public service efficiency and effectiveness.

Quite reasonably, individuals and society want results and value for money.

What matters is for the value to be defined beyond just pounds but also in terms of social cohesion, equality, opportunity, fairness, personal and community health – and even happiness.

The current economic conditions, state of our public services, and political climate make this the right time to shift way from the marketisation and commoditisation of public services in order to celebrate their societal, communal and economic importance.

It is time for a public service renaissance – in terms of quality, funding and recognition of their true public value.

  • John Tizard

    John Tizard is an independent strategic adviser and commentator on public policy and public services. He works with a range of public, private, third, union and academic organisations. He now holds several non-executive, trustee and chair roles in the VCS and arts sectors. He was a senior executive both at Capita and Scope, and is a former joint council leader

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