Would you like more choice about your healthcare and schools? The government wants to open up our public services – but we must make sure that these choices are meaningful ones.
While so much airtime last week taken up with tales of ambient pasties and the fear of a potential fuel crisis, you could be forgiven for missing the government’s update on its plans to open up public services.
This is planned to ensure that public services, like schools and hospitals, work better for everyone.
What is an open public service?
We all engage with a range of public services in our daily lives – from refuse collection to hospitals, street-lighting to secondary schools.
The Open Public Services agenda is described by the government as a move towards treating people more ‘like grown-ups’ – giving us more choice and control over the services we use and better information to help us choose between them.
The communities we live in should also have a much stronger voice – rather than being limited too much by central or local government.
Rather than just getting what we’re given, it’s an opportunity for users of public services (i.e. all of us!) to ask for what we want. For example, in social care some people already receive direct payments to buy the care services that suit them best, rather than having them arranged by the local council. It’s an idea that has caught on in health too – with personal health budgets being piloted this year.
Demanding more from public services
The argument is that services will provide a better standard of service and be more productive if they focus on what users need. Competition for our custom between a wide range of providers will ensure that we get more choice and that services react better to meet those needs.
In practice, the government is working on a number of ideas to make this a reality. For example, pilots will be taking place this year on allowing people more choice over their GP, rather than being tied to one near where they live.
The government has also pledged to look at tools that might give us more power to demand the services we want. For example, they are looking at a possible new ‘right to choose’ and a campaign to let us all know what our rights are around choice.
At Which?, we want to see high quality public services available for all – so we welcome realistic steps to make services more responsive to people’s needs by putting more choice and control in their hands. But that choice must be real and meaningful and information made available a way that works for people.
What happens when things go wrong?
The government imagines that eventually it will become more of a guarantor of services than a provider – making sure that people have fair access and that basic quality standards are met. They are also looking at how to make sure that people get redress when their choice isn’t met or services don’t meet those standards. We want to see effective mechanisms to deal with people’s problems and complaints when things go wrong.
As I work on health – an area where we’ve been promised more choice for some years – I’m keen to know what your experience is of using rights like this. Have you been supported to make choices about where you receive your treatment, for example? If you didn’t get what you wanted, what would have helped you? And is choice something you even consider when you’re thinking about your health?