How can public services be rebuilt?

By Savi Hensman
November 12, 2013

The UK government’s cuts to spending on public services are for ideological reasons, not just because of the deficit. In a speech at the lord mayor’s banquet in the Guildhall, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his intention to build “a leaner, more efficient state. We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently.”

In his view “we need a bigger and more prosperous private sector to generate wealth and pay for the public services we need.” Yet corporation tax for companies making huge profits is being slashed year by year, and tax loopholes kept open to allow some big businesses to pay very little.

Many libraries have closed, doctors and nurses struggling to meet basic patient needs, while people needing help to eat and drink or get to the toilet cannot always receive this because social care has been so badly squeezed. Meanwhile already tight public funding is being squandered through privatisation, despite mounting anger at the way in which energy companies, among others, are profiting at the public’s expense.

“Contracting with private sector providers is a fast-growing and important part of delivering public services.  But there is a crisis of confidence at present, caused by some worrying examples of contractors not appearing to treat the public sector fairly, and of departments themselves not being on top of things,” according to Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office.

There has also been widespread concern about expensive schemes being driven through by government ministers without carefully weighing up the pros and cons, and ongoing spending on unnecessary military conflicts and boosting the arms trade, or on projects which damage the environment. This further reduces the amount of money available for basic services and facilities, from safe streets to adequately-funded state schools.

It is not even clear that the level of cuts ultimately benefits business overall, as infrastructure is damaged and the health of the current and future workforce jeopardised. Certainly if the wellbeing of ordinary people is to be put before profit for a few, public services will need to be rebuilt.

Yet better funding, while important, is not enough. The behaviour of senior managers in the BBC and NHS has recently come under public scrutiny, including large pay rises for many at the top while frontline services are under pressure.

While it is nothing new for some of those in charge of public services to lead lives distant from those of most users and to fail to listen adequately to them, in recent decades there has been a push for managers to be more ‘business-like’. Unfortunately this has sometimes not involved being better-organised and less wasteful of resources but rather trying to imitate some of the worst aspects of the private sector, including practices which are outmoded in better-managed businesses.

Trying to appear ‘tough’ and unsentimental can result in apparently callous disregard for the wellbeing of the most vulnerable service users and lower-level staff, resulting in a drop in standards and profound alienation among personnel. Being under pressure to cater constantly to the latest ideas of politicians, however poorly thought through, including vanity projects and those which mainly benefit party donors or allies, has further undermined the ability of many top managers to focus on the core purposes of the services they run.

If public services are to be rebuilt so that they can function effectively and be responsive to users, they will need to be adequately resourced, including making sure that meeting needs is prioritised over enriching shareholders. In addition, how they are organised and led should be re-examined.

Sometimes staff at various levels have shown impressive dedication and worked extremely hard in difficult circumstances. These include a shift in public attitudes towards the wrong kind of consumerism, in which ‘customers’ show little consideration towards those expected to serve them. However some, especially in the most senior positions, may need to rethink their priorities if confidence is to be restored and public services enabled to flourish again.


(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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