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

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.

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