Public services tend to be seen as guarantors of well-being. Whether we think of education, healthcare or essential local services, it is generally agreed that public services, funded by taxation and available to people regardless of their ability to directly pay, play a role in protecting certain minimum standards. As soon as we move however beyond these basic assumptions, debates around public services become more antagonistic, with competing arguments regarding the most efficient use of public funds, the most effective modes of delivery and the main priorities of service provision. It is thus not surprising that reform plans for public services are subject to controversial and often contradictory claims as to what should be done, can be done and why.
It is one of the tasks of social scientists to reveal what lies behind such arguments and to hence analyse the material and ideological drivers behind social transformations or policy change. To do this well, it makes sense to rely on an effective combination of empirical research and theorising, with the latter being essential to reduce the complexity of social reality and to create frameworks, models and categories that help to foster a critical understanding of the social world surrounding us.
Based on empirical research of public service reforms and having taught this topic for several years, I would argue that we can identify four distinct ideational frameworks, which represent a coherent set of beliefs guiding public service reform. In this blog post, I would like to briefly introduce these four and invite any comments, either publicly or via email:
The social-holistic framework sees public services as deeply interwoven with the integrative fabric of a society, as institutions that tie social groups, individuals and communities together by establishing bonds of collectively organised mutual support and interdependence. The importance of public services goes beyond the practical, as they represent one major expression of how a society chooses to be organised along the lines of democratic inclusiveness as well as inter-generational and inter-personal solidarity. Public services are, from this perspective and in the words of Castel and Haroche (2001), a form of social property accessible to all citizens and residents.
The political-selective framework is equally embedded in material social relations, but it is less universal and comprehensive than the previous framework, as it focuses on the conflictual interplays between social groups. The shape and generosity of public services as well as the priorities of service delivery are determined by the ability of social groups and classes to influence the policy process and to make demands for service provision.
The economic-functionalist framework defines public services negatively, as a response to perceived gaps and distortions in the functioning of markets. Wherever market failures occur, a space for legitimate government intervention opens up to address said market failures, but the scope of public services remains generally restricted to those realms where market-based approaches, according to the theoretical premises of this perspective, appear as insufficient.
The moral-residual framework takes this thinking further, by stipulating that public services ought to provide nothing more than a minimum safety net for the poorest members of society, in other words for those who do not possess the economic or social capital to protect themselves, for example by purchasing private education or health insurance. It could be argued that this framework represents a sub-set of the economic-functionalist framework, if it weren’t for one substantial difference: Similar to means-tested benefits, users of these residual public services can potentially be subjected to a moralising discourse that defines any reliance on the minimum safety net as a sign of personal failure.
These four frameworks obviously need to be fine-tuned by further empirical research in order to create proper ideal-types, but I think they can serve well as a starting point for analyses that seek to identify how advocates of public service reform, be it political parties, think tanks or NGOs, conceptualise and act upon public services.
In this way, we can gain a deeper understanding of the underpinning ideas and interests that drive policy change in this particular field. Moreover, it becomes easier to identify broader trends in public service reform and to situate specific case studies within these trends, going beyond categories such as ‘choice and competition’ that are frequently used by observers and policy-makers to describe reform processes. And finally, frameworks like these, or adjusted versions of them, should enable us to shine a brighter spotlight on the intellectual premises that underpin debates about public services. It seems to me this critical engagement is crucial in times when the neoliberal and managerial paradigms of the past, despite their obvious flaws and failures, continue to restrict policy debates.
Castel, R. and Haroche, C. (2001). Propriété privée, propriété sociale, propriété de soi. Paris: Librairie Artème Fayard.