The government is said to be working on measures to speed growth and raise economic performance. One of the worrying features of recent economic figures is the apparent poor showing of productivity.
I have been working on how the UK considers and provides public service. This builds on a book I wrote entitled Third Way Which way? under Labour.
To improve the performance of the Uk economy we first need to widen the definition of public service. I regard the bread supply as a public service as well as the water supply. I regard scheduled airline services as public transport, just like train services. I see the internet as a public service, just as the post is a public service. A public service is not limited to a service provided by public sector employees, or provided free at the point of use, or heavily subsidised. Some of the best public services are provided with user charges by competitive private sector companies.
I have identified a spectrum of ways of delivering public service. It is not a simple public sector good , private sector bad (Labour’s view) or vice versa (Some conservatives’ view). There are 8 different types of public service:
- Public sector monopoly provided free at point of use by public sector e.g. Roadspace
- Public sector provision free at the point of use with some competition between public sector providers – hospitals, schools
- Public sector monopolies provided free at point of use by private sector contractors e.g. domestic rubbish collection
- Private sector monopolies provided free at the point of use e.g. free local newspapers, certain types of internet service, ITV
- Monopoly activities provided by the public sector but paid for by users – e.g. Planning and Building Regulation services, passport issue
- Competitive services provided by the private sector but paid for by the state e.g. care homes for people without capital
- Competitive services provided by the state but paid for by users – municipal or state trading – e.g. public leisure facilities
- Competitive services paid for by users and provided by private sector – this is most public service in a free enterprise economy – everything from food to most professional services
All public service can be grouped according to whether the service is a monopoly or subject to competition, whether the user pays or the taxpayer pays, and whether the service is run with and by public sector or private sector employees.
The importance of this understanding is to boost productivity, encourage new investment and innovation and raise growth. This can be done by moving more services from monopoly to competitive models, whether they be in the public or private sectors. It can be done by moving more services to user charges, allowing more private finance and providing a better market test of the efficiency and value of the service. That can only be acceptable if there are offsetting tax cuts, so people pay less, not more, overall. Moving from public sector employment to employee buy outs or other ways of organising effort is often a good way of boosting performance.
It would be good to make more progress in shifting services in these directions to achieve better outcomes. Some suggestions include:
- Moving to competition for all users of water services when the government take powers to introduce some competition into the industry. It is a prime candidate for new models and new investment. It can be allied to switching to meters when people change house as well as letting them switch if they choose to do so.
- Launching a series of new toll road projects to start to bring user charging into roads. You would only pay for a new road that the company was providing, not for existing ” free” roads.
- Reducing the number of areas where the private sector has to buy licences and permits from the public sector to operate
- Allowing profit making companies to provide schools and Colleges
- Breaking up Network Rail and returning it to the proper private sector, with competition allowed between the differing regional railways that could create. Where train companeis wanted to it could reunite trains and track.
- Splitting RBS into competing UK clearing banks and returning them to the private sector
Improved performance in big areas like banking and water, where there is a substantial government involvement, would boost general productivity. The heavy loss making businesses like Network Rail and RBS are not contributing to our national wealth and prosperity as we would like, and are a drain on taxpayers.