Exactly how open are Open Public Services?

Warning: contains polit­ics!

What does the word ‘open’ mean to you? To me it’s linked with a few things — it means some­thing that every­one can get hold of and get involved in, that every­one can see how it works, and that is open to people’s feed­back, and their criti­cism. It shows you exactly what you’re going to get, and how you’re going to get it. However, to me this is more or less the oppos­ite of what the govern­ment are propos­ing White Paper (that’s the kind of paper they put out to show their big ideas before they talk about them in more depth) on Open Public Services — for a good number of people in the UK they could be shut­ting the door and lock­ing it.

Why? Firstly, the paper explains that the UK’s poor are suffer­ing because of a lack of decent services in their area. Not many people would dispute that — it’s abso­lutely true that for health­care and educa­tion, where you live massively affects the qual­ity of the services you have.

Secondly, the paper sets out the areas the govern­ment wants to improve and sets out a number of ways it thinks it can achieve:

  • Choice – Wherever possible we will increase choice.
  • Decentralisation – Power should be decent­ral­ised to the lowest appro­pri­ate level.
  • Diversity – Public services should be open to a range of providers.
  • Fairness – We will ensure fair access to public services.
  • Accountability – Public services should be account­able to users and taxpay­ers.

All very nice. However if the govern­ment really want to do what they prom­ise to do at the very begin­ning of the paper and bring real choice and great services to poor areas, what they propose simply does not go far enough, and in my opin­ion could leave the poor and vulner­able even more exposed to bad prac­tices and unfair­ness than ever before.

A big part of their plan is about encour­aging busi­nesses to fight against each other making them more effi­cient or better at health­care, or educa­tion, or running a care home. Fair enough, that might work where there are enough people to support loads of compan­ies, but what about where there aren’t? In the coun­tryside, for example, or on a run-down estate where having two corner­shops just means one quickly goes out of busi­ness — a choice of one isn’t really much of a choice.

There are other examples of ways this paper disad­vant­ages people outside of a certain income bracket or even a post­code, for example the govern­ment wants the UK citizen to do almost everything online, a crush­ing disad­vant­age to people who can neither get nor afford broad­band.

But the main thing that occurs to me is that in places that have this real lack of choice, you could get some really concern­ing things happen­ing. The govern­ment has already shown itself to be broadly in favour of things like faith schools — what if they were your only choice for educat­ing your child? And what if health services followed suit, leav­ing your area’s only sexual health advice centre in the hands of a rigidly ‘pro-life’ or anti-gay company.

The paper talks about places you can complain to, certi­fic­ates for compan­ies offer­ing services, low levels of support for people who can’t afford treat­ment or care, and a prom­ise that compan­ies will have to look after the disad­vant­aged just as much as those who can afford to pay on their own, but they’re being very vague about what any of that means.

So I urge you to tell them that poorer and less popu­lated areas need more protec­tion than they’re offer­ing, that choice should always mean real choice, and not the lesser of the remain­ing evils, and that fair in areas that can’t afford choice could well mean keep­ing exist­ing services in place and giving them what they need to offer the people they look after the best possible care, educa­tion and advice.

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Corinne Pritchard

Corinne Pritchard

Information Designer at Simply Understand
I believe design and design­ers can and should make the world a better place. I love design­ing things that help people under­stand complex ideas.
Corinne Pritchard

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