When Tony Blair allowed Gordon Brown to step up the rate of increase in public spending after 2001, he did have a mantra which said extra money had to go hand in hand with reform. He attempted to introduce more types of school, developing the Academy model. He came to the conclusion that he had been wrong in his first period in office to remove the outgoing Conservative government’s reforms in the NHS to try to give patients more choice and more control over how the money is spent. All this proved very contentious with his own side, and especially with the public sector trade unions.
One of the main problems with monopoly public services is there is no way of ensuring change, innovation and progress. Whenever the service disappoints or lets people down, the cry goes up from the providers that more money is the only thing that is required to put it right. There is no easy way of closing down, replacing or stopping a public service which is no longer needed, or which is failing.
The customers of public service, the taxpayers, have little choice or authority over the providers in most cases. I do not get to use many public services. I do have to use the Council rubbish collection service, and pay for it through my Council Tax. If it were a bad service, I would have to try to complain through a Councillor. I cannot simply switch to a cheaper or better supplier. There is no competitive edge in the service market, and the end user is not necessarily the customer. The customer of the refuse service is in many areas in effect the Council not the homeowners. This means the service provider is more interested in wooing the Council officials than the users, unless the Council is well run and focused on end customer satisfaction.
Various reformers have sought to find ways to strengthen the customer voice, to empower the end users who pay through their taxes. With the current monopoly model for most services there are rows over rationing -some users cannot get the school place they want for their child, or cannot get the treatment they need when they need it from their local hospital. There is also a reluctance to close down failing services, as any closure always produces a small group campaigning to keep the service open, or petitions and protests from the providers.
There is also a heavy reliance in public service on enforcement and penalties for improper use of services as defined by the public provider, and practically no reliance on incentives or rewards. My local refuse service limits people to a certain number of refuse sacks a year to limit the cost of landfill disposal for the Council. If you need to dump more you have pay extra. I am happy with that idea. I would also like an incentive proposal. As I do not use all the sacks they supply me with, why do I not get a rebate on my refuse charge? One of the ways to test out how popular some suitable free public services really are might be to allow incentive payments for non use, as with my refuse sack idea.