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It’s not surprising that the Government’s White Paper on public service reform failed to grab the headlines from the meltdown of News International and the Met. But after a few days off blogging I want to spend this week writing about the White Paper and the light it sheds of Coalition thinking.

As I will explore later in the week, the White Paper suffers from contradictions as well as gaps and credibility problems but it also tell us something profound about the Coalition’s view of power, strategy and accountability.

But today I want to focus on two people who the Government believes will shoulder the burden of ensuring we have good public services despite falling investment, rising demand and the need for major services to do some radical rethinking about models of production and delivery.

These two people are not David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the authors of the White Paper’s introduction. Nor are they Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley whose policies the White Paper attempts to shoehorn into a single narrative. Instead I will call them Charlie Choice and Camilla Community.

Running through the White Paper is the theory that better public services and social outcomes will come about primarily through mechanisms which offer more choice to citizens and which provide opportunity for local people to take over decisions, services and assets. Don’t get me wrong, I am keen on Charlie and Camilla too, but I also worry about the expectations David and Nick are placing on their shoulders.

I can see, for example, that where Charlie wants to choose his school, his GP, his hospital consultant and his university, his choices may help to improve services. I know nothing about cars but am confident that whatever car I buy will probably be reasonable value because in a competitive market where consumers know what they want, the Charlie Choices of the motor world will quickly give a bad car a bad name.

But the problem for Charlie is that in a system with less funding, and in some areas growing capacity shortages (for example the looming primary school place crisis in London), it will be less matter of consumer sovereignty and more of trying to find a service that will choose him. Charlie probably won’t be reassured by the White Paper’s offer that if he doesn’t get an effective choice his redress will be to e-mail a national Ombudsman (who may have quite a lot of Charlies to deal with and few powers to give them any satisfaction).

Also, is it fair to expect Charlie to improve services as a whole when really he is only interested in the ones he uses? Some lucky Charlies may be able to choose from a number of services but how will this ensure that some of the big strategic decisions about objectives, structures and organisational forms get made? For example, everyone knows there are far too many hospitals in England and far too much care is provided in hospital that could be provided elsewhere, but should we expect Charlie’s limited choices to resolve issues that need decisions about planning, strategy and resource allocation (some of which may prove very unpopular)?

As for Camilla Community she is going to be exhausted. Setting up a free school in the morning, writing a community plan over lunch, buying and managing the local swimming pool and pub in the afternoon and calling a council tax referendum in the evening. I have two worries about Camilla. First, where is she going to get the support she needs to do all the work that is expected of her?  All the evidence suggests that only a very small (and probably falling) proportion of the population wants to undertake the kind of complex, time consuming, bureaucratic work that is necessary when taking over public services, writing local plans or challenging  local councils. Many people do volunteer but they tend to want do things which are easy, enjoyable, have a direct impact and don’t involve making major commitments. At least Camilla Community in Tunbridge Wells, surrounded by healthy educated retired people will  find it easier to get support, than her poorer cousin Karen in Coventry.

My even bigger worry is that Camilla will find all her good intentions and efforts could actually end up making her quite an unpopular figure. Her friends working on the free school will be supportive, but she might start to get some nasty looks from her neighbours who are involved in other schools facing problems and losing money, which they partly blame on Camilla’s project. Similarly her working group to write a community plan may end up divided as one side demands new houses and business units while the other wants to protect the tranquillity of existing residents. 

Camilla started out becoming an activist because she didn’t trust the politicians, so she is bound to be upset when she ends up seeming to be embroiled in politics of her own, but without the conventions and rules which are used to deal with disagreement in democratic institutions. Camilla is driven by a spirit of public service but she is dismayed to find that many other local people seem to have an axe to grind or a vested interest to protect, even worse a worryingly high proportion of those most keen to be involved in her committees seem to be, well, a bit bonkers.

Let me say again, I am keen on Charlie and Camilla. But I think we should be reasonable and realistic in what we ask of them. Charlie can only really be useful where there is spare capacity and even then his impact will be at the edges (helping to expose failure) and margins (helping incremental improvements in performance).  Camilla is at her best when there is an immediate problem which mobilises people. If she wants to play a longer term role she is going to need a lot of support, including probably the intervention of traditional democratic processes (the council) when local issues prove intractable.

The over-reliance on, and unreasonable expectations of, Charlie and Camilla highlight the most interesting thing about the Government’s public sector approach – which is not what is in it but what isn’t. I’ll write about that tomorrow.

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