This qualitative study carried out on behalf of the 2020 Public Services Trust at the RSA helps to shed light on what politicians should take into account in their conversations with voters about reforms to public services. Ipsos MORI's central government research team tested several provisional ideas generated by the Commission on 2020 Public Services for how services might be reformed in future, looking at how people respond to different policy ideas and exploring their underlying attitudes and beliefs. The research was supported by JRF and the DCLG Empowerment Fund.
The findings show that security and fairness are at the heart of what people value about public services. The public value the safety net that public services provide, and this sense of security is something that they are unwilling to trade off. People do want services to be more flexible and responsive to their needs, but not if prioritising these concerns means that the safety net is jeopardised.
Fairness is also central to what the public value about public services, but people often mean different, and even contradictory, things by this. Fairness for some people means uniform standards of service across the country, while others talk of local communities getting a ‘fair deal’, which involves allowing different standards for different local areas. Others talk of fairness in the sense of resources being allocated differently, depending on how much in need or how deserving different groups in society are seen to be. These different ways of seeing fairness are often in tension in the public mind.
Policy ideas that fail to meet some combination of security and fairness are less likely to be well received. Any reforms to public services will have to maintain their essential characteristics – providing a safety net and support, with processes and outcomes which are seen to be fair.
The public welcome greater local control in principle, but there is concern about the practicalities. It makes intuitive sense to many of us that the people who live in a local area, or the frontline staff who are responsible for delivering a particular public service, are well placed to know what that local area or service needs in order to work better. There is also a sense that greater local control can play a role in empowering local people and frontline staff in ways that perhaps don’t happen at the moment.
How greater local control would work in practice, though, is something that people are less sure about. Concern is expressed about interest group capture – will those who are most vocal and most likely to make the effort to get involved have disproportionate influence over the decisions that are taken? People also raise the question of how communities would manage to reconcile differences of opinion.
Ideas that enable greater individual control over resources, such as individual budgets, are received positively, although there are worries about whether these can be accessible to less advantaged groups in society. People see having greater control over resources as important, not least because of the sense of empowerment it can provide. But there are concerns over fairness and whether those from lower socio-economic groups, or more marginalised or vulnerable people in society, might struggle to make this work for them.
Something that people feel might help less able and advantaged people navigate public services is the idea of having citizen advisers, who would help people access services in a way that best meets their needs. The research uncovers a real desire for help and guidance in navigating public services, particularly at times of greater need in people’s lives – and this underpins the popularity of the citizen adviser idea.