McTernan on politics

What are the limits to choice in the public services? Is there a
point where we have to stop being consumers and start being
citizens? What would be the direct, and indirect, benefits of
greater public involvement in the public services? These were among
the questions debated at a recent seminar hosted by the Institute
for Public Policy Research.

The meeting was the beginning of the Working Group on Active
Citizenship in the Public Services and for almost a day and a half
senior academics, theorists and practitioners wrestled with the
task of setting the right questions to be answered. A casualty of
this approach was the depiction of the future as a battle between
selfless citizens and selfish consumers.

It proved easy to find counter-examples – the concerned consumer
purchasing fair-trade goods or seeking sustainably produced food
and the selfish citizen who like nothing better than meetings and
consultation processes. The hard – and unanswered – questions were
about the interaction between these behaviours. As consumers we
choose the best school we can for our kids with the impact that
weak schools become poorer.

Perhaps more profoundly, the paradox was posed that the cumulative
impact of extending choice into more and more areas of public
service provision may be undermining our capacity to make decisions
collectively. For the logic of the individual choice is to
prioritise the personal and the immediate – I know what I want and
I want it now – while collective action, of whatever sort, always
involves trade-offs. Inevitably this took the discussion into the
realm of politics.

Falling turnout has exposed the frailty of politicians’ mandate –
is it time to apply to them the approaches they have been
promulgating for the rest of society? What would a charter of
rights and responsibilities look like for Cabinet ministers or
local government councillors?

Ultimately, there was a lot of optimism that, broadly, things were
moving in the right direction – there is increasing public
involvement in public services and much good practice to learn
from. However, the nagging doubts remained – why have we been
discussing these issues for the best part of 20 years now? Is the
scale of modern society too great for real deliberation and
engagement? Or is it that the ambitions we have are too wide:
perhaps it is too much to demand of public involvement that it
delivers improved services, better decision-making, increased
legitimacy and more responsible citizens. By the end of the seminar
it was clear that real progress had been made in framing the right
questions – time now for creative solutions.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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