First published in The Guardian’s Public Sector Network
There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the public policyagenda today. While on the one hand we are urged to build a big society where citizens run things for themselves, on the other we are told to ‘nudge’ them in this or that direction and make decisions on their behalf.
Something odd has happened to public services over the past decade or so. Services that were once a part of the social settlement that led to the creation of the welfare state, have increasingly become a tool for telling people how to behave. Whether it’s creating better citizens or trying to change their lifestyles, the only question raised is how best to do it.
The government’s approach to recycling is to fund local initiatives rewarding good residents with points redeemable at local retailers. “We want to see people helping us to boost recycling rates by putting out their rubbish correctly,” said environment secretary Caroline Spelman as she launched a public consultation on the matter, “but bullying them with fines is not the way to do it.” Opponents, particularly local authorities none too keen on reverting to the weekly bin collection, only object that scarce public funds would be better spent on other behaviour-controlling initiatives such as the cuts-threatened SureStart centres.
The world of social care, while rhetorically in favour of more independence, choice and control, for its users, is obsessed with vetting the behaviour of staff, volunteers, or anybody else that might come into contact with a vulnerable child or adult. The NHS, of Olympic opening ceremony fame, may be free at the point of use. But no expense is spared on posters in GP surgeries and hospital waiting rooms telling patients that they must change their lifestyles – stop smoking, exercise more, lose weight – or to remind expectant mothers that ‘breast is best’.
Housing associations are as busy managing the lives of their tenants as they are managing the housing stock and more interested in building communities than building new homes. Schools apparently cater more to the contents of children’s school dinners and lunchboxes and managing misbehaviour in the classroom, than filling young people’s minds with something that might encourage them to sit still for a moment. Meanwhilea mass movement co-ordinator for the Olympic and Paralympic Games’ opening and closing ceremonies is apparently using dance – in consultation with the Metropolitan Police and the Criminal Justice Board – to reduce youth crime.
Indeed for those driving public policy today the delivery of public services is not the point. It is all about shaping new ‘active citizens’ the better to meet corporate objectives. But surely this gets things back to front? A truly active citizen acts of their own accord and not according to the imperatives of public management. The good news is that by ditching the policing of people’s behaviour we might emulate the vision of a big society in which responsible citizens take the reins. This is why we should adopt an alternative approach: one that genuinely enables people’s autonomy rather than smothering their initiative.