The Uk debate has a rather narrow implied definition of a public service. MPs and media commentators see the NHS, state schools, the police and the BBC as public services.
To me the provision of bread, as well as water is a public service. Sky Tv is as much a public service as the BBC. Private sector health providers and public schools are public services like their state cousins. Private sector firms may often be working for the state as contractors helping provide public services.
The narrow UK debate seems to centre around a particular idea of how a public service can best be provided. If a service is free at the point of use, deliverd by state employees, and not subject to competition, that is a pure public service in UK eyes. In practice, this idea of a public service scarcely exists in the modern UK. It may be largely true of our defence and police forces, but it is not true of the other commonly identified public services.
In the case of health there are now charges for dental work, for prescriptions and for some items of service. The work may be done by a private sector contractor rather than a state employee. Our state schools face competition from public schools, offering free places and scholarships to children whose parents cannot afford the fees. The BBC imposes a user charge or tax on all people with tvs, but faces competition from free to air and paying services. It also uses its market presence to advertise its own services extensively.
I find we need a different way of analysing public service from the simple public or private of the rather stultified UK debate. There are fewer and fewer pure public services on the narrow definition. The questions to ask when trying to analyse a public service are:
1. Do users pay at the point of use or not?
2 Is there choice for users?
3.Are the employees and organisations producing the service under state control or not?
These questions give eight different types of public service or enterprise, ranging from the state monopoly free at the point of use with state employees, to the private sector business delivering a competitive service and charging the customer. There are more and more hybrids as a result of public service reform by Blair and the Coalition.
The debate would be better informed if instead of two teams backing either “pure” public service or pure free enterprise, we got down to discussing how each service with a state component can best be organised.