Why the state can never deliver great public services

The standardisation needed to deliver what would count as equality of treatment for all can be achieved only by deliberately excluding competition and any serious incentives to improve services, says former UK ambassador Charles Crawford

Whitehall: the men from the ministries
Charles Crawford
On 8 January 2012 10:14

One of the most striking reasons why modern government is failing lies in the essence of delivering democracy.

Part of the point of democracy is “equality of treatment”. Public services should be, as far as possible, similar for all citizens. This is easier said than done, as we see with the NHS. It's not “fair”, they hoot, that people in some parts of England might be getting better levels of care than elsewhere. 

I experienced this personally with Foreign Office consular services to British citizens overseas. I was chastised as HM Ambassador in Warsaw for wanting to push over-hard to help one British citizen who had become utterly entangled in an especially impenetrable corner of the Polish legal system on a criminal negligence charge.

His case had dragged on for several years, and showed no sign of getting resolved. I said that the whole situation was absurd. We surely owed it to him to try to help him extricate himself, eg by using my friendly relations with the Polish Justice Minister to explore a way to help nudge things along.

Stop right there, Mr Ambassador! What would happen if the Embassy in Warsaw went out of its way at a senior level to help this one hapless citizen? That would set a precedent for the whole network -- word would get around that one person in Poland had had a lot of active support from the Embassy and the Ambassador personally, and everyone else would expect the same! Worse, it could even be a breach of their Human Rights if they did not get it!

After a certain amount of grumpy haggling a formula was found under which we managed to identify a legal procedure which might move the process forward without bringing the whole UK consular network to its knees. And, to my utter amazement, the British citizen himself was unwilling to use it.

This idea that all citizens should be able to expect a good basic level of service -- but never much more -- is a powerful one. No politician is ready to get up and defend a system which delivers varying levels of public service.

Yet it comes at a price, namely a drift towards pedantic and inefficient standardisation.

I thought I was the only person on earth with a fond memory of an episode of the 1960s BBC comedy series “Sykes”, in which Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques work as bus driver and conductrix respectively and decide to give customers a better level of service. Yet it is recalled here on a site about Buses on Screen (long live the Internet).

What was funny about the plot was of course the very idea that people working on a state bus service might actually improvise to start improving the service to passengers, eg by serving tea and cakes and taking helpful detours.

All of which is a long-winded way to getting round to what happened as I attempted, as a member of the public, to get into Leeds Crown Court (as one does) at 0855 last Thursday.

To cut a long and amusing story short, I was going to watch a court hearing and went in by an open door next to the main doors just before the court opened at 0900, to escape a howling rainstorm.

The serried ranks of Leeds Crown Court security apparatchiki ordered me to retreat outside into the storm to wait for the doors to open formally. I decided to stand just inside the doorway to avoid the monsoon.

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