Choice is a funny thing. I spent seven months studying how it worked in practice when I was running the Barriers to Choice Review for the Cabinet Office.
Despite the rhetoric from parts of the left, I believe that people can improve public services by being able to choose between different providers.
I’m also only too aware how many people are excluded from that – by a lack of information or advice, by a lack of transport and any number of other factors.
I am also aware of the political confusion around the term, when words like choice, competition and co-production, are often used interchangeably. As service users know very well, there are times when choice and competition are aligned, but there are also times when they cancel each other out.
This is so, for example, when the actual choice is made, not by patients, but by service commissioners choosing between two alternative candidates for block contracts. Or when the weight of demand is such – as it is for some popular schools or GP surgeries – that the choice is made by the institution, not by the user. In both cases, there is competition, but no user choice
But the basic concept is right. Nobody should have to put up with poor or patronising service - and people’s ability to choose does give the poor or marginalised the right to say no, and go elsewhere.
I also believe in the underlying purpose of choice in public services. It puts pressure on managers to be aware of what people want. It reminds staff that services are not designed for the convenience of professionals.
The systems set up over the past decade or so miss out a great deal, but holding the basic price steady, and letting service users choose, can improve services.
The evidence can be ambiguous on this point, but the basic argument is widely accepted inside and outside government – giving people some choice between providers is a safeguard for service quality and it often improves it.
But there is a peculiarity at the heart of this. It may even be a stark contradiction.
For some reason, successive governments which believe these things suddenly stop believing them when it comes to services for poor or desperate people.
Some services directed at the at the most disadvantaged people are notable by their almost complete absence of choice. If choice encourages responsibility, flexibility and better success rates in other areas of public services, then it is probably time some element of choice of providers was introduced also in drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, and in employment services.
None of these services are intended to be punishments – they are there to support people back to work or out of addictions – and they would benefit from the same kind of choices that users enjoy in other services.
Which brings us to the proposed changes to legal aid. If choice improves services in the health and education sector, and underpins the rights of individuals not to put up with careless or uncaring professionals, why does the same not apply to legal aid?
The proposed changes take choice away from individuals, and hand it over to the commissioners - the precise reverse of policy in social care, health and education.
Unfortunately, the Justice Department seems to have fallen for one of the other great mistakes of successive governments – that economies of scale will make services more efficient.
There is no evidence for this at all. What evidence there is suggests that where there are big providers, which owe nothing to the individuals they are supposed to be helping, then the diseconomies of scale – the small inefficiencies and miscarriages – very rapidly overtake the economies.
We will see. But I suspect the plans will not just decrease choice, they will also increase costs.
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