You can't eat all the sweets in the shop

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Politics must resolve the tension between what individuals want and what the public can afford, says Ewan Aitken

oy Jobson, newly enthroned president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, is rarely reduced to silence but a heckler at a recent public meeting about school amalgamations managed the trick.

For about the fourth time that night, Roy was explaining that one of the main reasons why we have falling school rolls is the continuing fall in the birth rate. To which a voice cried: "So what are you going to do about it?"

The job of director of education is wide-ranging but surely not that much.

The exchange caused me to reflect on what I see as a huge challenge not just to schools but to public services as a whole. It is a danger that is created by the tension between the increasing public demand for both personal, individualised services and planned and efficient use of taxes.

It is a tension that national politicians need to get a firm grip of, or our whole tradition of public service could be brought to its knees.

More and more public services are treated as products "purchased" by an individual through their taxes in the same way we purchase any other service.

This is a legacy of a time when the individual was all and the common good was an anathema. That does not mean that all public services need to be one size fits all, nor does it mean that they should not meet the needs of the individual. But there will be times when the best way of delivering a service will mean change for some that will have what feels like an apparent worsening of service - for example, having to travel a little farther to a school while, for others, the distance lessens.

The problem is that when we shop, although we look at price, quality, appearance and many other factors that might seem objective, in the end we base our purchasing on what feels right for us as individuals. Two people of the same gender, age, size, weight, profession, lifestyle will purchase very different versions of the same product because they feel each suits them better.

Engaging in economic exchange is as much an expression of our emotional well-being as it is our economic well-being, although one will very much affect the other. The most extreme example of this is what is called "retail therapy", which is a shocking nonsense but yet has for many people a palliative effect, at least until they see their credit card bill.

The more public services are perceived as products bought with our taxes, the more we apply or look for the same emotional experience when choosing them. That's what we understand as reflecting our individual needs.

Politicians have latched on to this as a new way of encouraging participation in the democratic process. Alan Milburn, the Labour Party's Westminster election supremo, indicated recently that the next Labour manifesto will focus on the "personalisation of services", insisting that they "offer more choice and more local control".

These laudable objectives carry a huge danger. Those same politicians who have continued to promote the democratisation of public services through a purchase paradigm have also demanded rigour in planning and accountability that is driven by a completely different set of priorities. The scrutiny of best value and of the Accounts Commission are necessary components of public accountability, but they cannot take account of the emotional responses embedded in a purchase paradigm of public services. Any conversation between purchaser and provider falters at the first step.

Local authorities can argue that falling birth rates which lead to falling rolls demand at least a discussion of school amalgamations - but the response is "you are taking away choice". They point out that money is better and more effectively spent this way - and they are told that "all you care about is money". They say they are responding to the Accounts Commission view of school capacities - and they are told "statistics don't tell the whole story".

National politicians are sending out two completely contradictory messages.

For service users, the public service as a product is being promoted as an alternative democratisation of local services. You have control because you "buy" the services. For service deliverers, the message is: watch the trends, give your planning rigour through analysis of statistical evidence and put a clear focus on best value.

Neither of these is right or wrong as such but, given out together, they will bring more than the odd heckles at public meetings. They will perpetuate an ever-widening gap between the public and the political process that will in itself undermine not just politicians but public services as a whole. Then the market really will take over and we will lose much more than just how we feel about our choices in public service.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education in Edinburgh and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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