Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 680 - 696)

THURSDAY 13 DECEMBER 2001

DR WENDY THOMSON

  680. Throughout you have given indications that people want this, this is what we must do. Brian has touched briefly on how we are going to seek people's views. I also want to know how you are seeking staff's views. I would endorse talking to our key workers. They are not happy and yet they have been very committed people. I just wonder—it is all very well, these statistics, but we have got people here, we have got producers and consumers here—what mechanisms are you setting up, what mechanisms are you using, to put those things in place?
  (Dr Thomson) The people who need to be listening are those who have responsibility for the changes in public services. It is important that, for instance, the Department of Health is working through its trusts, the DfES is working through its schools. It is important that they are working through those systems to make sure that there are mechanisms for getting feedback from staff and customers, patients, pupils, and they are all in the process of doing just that at the moment, and some of them have had those positions for much longer. Just listening does not mean that everything changes immediately. The systems for obtaining that feedback and dialogue are being developed and in some locations are in place.

  681. I cannot say that I get an overwhelming feeling that key workers feel that they being listened to at the moment. Coming on to people's views more in the centre, one of my colleagues has been very interested in the People's Panel. Are you using that?
  (Dr Thomson) The People's Panel was set up for a specific purpose and it will complete its round of surveys this coming January and will be publishing its report just after that. I think there will be also an assessment made of what lessons have been learned from the People's Panel both in terms of the information it gave us about how the public view public services but also, picking up your earlier question, what we learned about the best ways of listening to public views. One of the lessons we are already acting on that we learned from the People's Panel is that it is very important to get this information in the hands of those people who are making decisions about policy and who are actually managing services, so we need not just to be taking views at a national level but making sure it is right across the public service locally.

  682. You obviously have some confidence it will filter out?
  (Dr Thomson) I have seen it in local government. As a result of the best value programme everyone was required to collect customer views and those were collected, and you do get some opportunity to benchmark different levels of customer understanding and customer satisfaction across different services in different parts of the country. Ofsted has done similar sorts of survey work with parents in the inspections they are doing in schools. You can see some examples of that. It helps to inform people. I think that is a useful piece of information.

  683. I think I shall remain very uneasy in that area. You mentioned choice and you said very confidently that the public want choice. On what evidence do you make that statement?
  (Dr Thomson) In general terms?

  684. Which section of the public want choice?
  (Dr Thomson) I would not say it is a top demand across all services but, generally speaking, the public likes to be informed about services they are receiving so they know what to expect and what they should receive. With that information, once they know about different services they like to be able to choose. So if you know one school is performing better than another, the tendency is to want to be able to go to where the school is better. The evidence supports that is what people would like.

  685. Is that true of a relatively small proportion of the population?
  (Dr Thomson) I am not aware of any evidence which suggests it is one group more than another. I think it varies from one service to another. People value different aspects of different services. In health care you need to have a surplus capacity before you can have choice, so probably it is not at the top of what people are looking for in the health service at the moment. In general terms, any of the research that I have seen suggests it is pretty consistent right across the board. On council housing, quite a lot of the research done shows people want choice, not just one group, pretty much everybody.

Chairman

  686. Are you saying quality only comes through choice?
  (Dr Thomson) I am not saying that, no.

  687. If it turned out what people really wanted was quality services, they do not need to have choice to get that, do they?
  (Dr Thomson) I think choice is often helpful in getting quality. I do not think it is the only way but I think sometimes it is helpful.

  688. If people want a reliable bus service, one which comes regularly, they do not want umpteen buses which come irregularly, do they?
  (Dr Thomson) No.

  689. Are we not confusing the mechanics for the outcome?
  (Dr Thomson) I think if the bus never came they would probably like the choice of one which did.

  690. Yes.
  (Dr Thomson) It is pretty simple. I am not making a more complex point than that. I think in public services, sometimes when they have not been performing well, people have felt they have had no choice and that has not been good for public services and not given you a confidence in that service. There have been places in the country where there have been no buses, so when there has been the introduction of alternative provision and that has provided a service, people have been pleased to have it.

  Chairman: Have you finished, Annette?

Annette Brooke

  691. Just picking up one point on choice. I am convinced perhaps as many as 50 per cent of the population do not actually have choice for one reason or another. The reason they do not have choice is really because at some level there is a decision to put resources into one area rather than another. The public cannot really choose to have a four star social services provision in their area and a two star education service because you can never really get a feel about them and they cannot express that choice. Those are not the questions that the electorate should ever really choose between. If you have a social services problem you would want a four star service. I just do not see how there are mechanisms. It would just come back to community leadership, I would accept that, but that does not fit, to my mind, with your choice model.
  (Dr Thomson) I think the public have been better informed at the first stage of what I have described as being very important. In social services I think you have just seen a huge change, to give that as an example, over the last five or ten years, where people have had little basis on which to assess how good a service they were receiving. Over the years, particularly with care homes, we have increasing information about the quality of care. With inspection now across the range of social services you can see the quality of the service and now you can compare how good your social services are with others provided by neighbouring authorities. That does not give you the choice, necessarily, I accept that, to move, but it does give you a sense of what you can expect and often within your social services you may have some choices between this home care service or that one, or this home or that one. The evidence is people are more satisfied when they have that opportunity in the areas that matter to them. I do not think people probably care that much about a choice in the refuse collection service, they just want it collected. I am sure there are a whole range of services where that is the case. People want their roads to operate. If some people do not have their refuse collected, others would also, probably, want a choice of somewhere that would. I think it is that sense of just being able to get the service you are entitled to, and having a right to that choice.

  Annette Brooke: Is this right of choice elitist?

Chairman

  692. We are almost ending. A couple of very quick things. Listening to you, my sense again, and it has come from listening to other people too, is that we are making awfully heavy weather—I do not mean in what you are saying—about a lot of this. I am saying it to other witnesses, I am not just saying it to you. I sense if you were running an authority that I was living in, you would probably sort it. I have felt this with a lot of people who have come in front of us and it is all pretty elementary stuff, is it not? If we get good people running things who know how to run things, and maybe this is what community leadership means, when we strip the jargon away, if people want to become teachers or want to become social workers, that allied with good management and good leadership will mean we get good services. It is not very difficult to work out. It is the fact that we have got, on the whole, lousy leadership. We have got some pretty lousy councillors, we have got some pretty lousy managers in local government, we have got people who do not want to be teachers any more. Who wants to be a social worker with the kinds of wages and conditions that they live in now? It seems to me the obvious things we miss and we spend all our time chasing around these intricate kind of techniques when it is staring us in the face. One ought to go on here.
  (Dr Thomson) I would agree entirely that leadership and motivated, competent people are absolutely central to the agenda. What we have been talking about this morning in different ways is really all about supporting them in a structure, in a policy where they can deliver. We find obviously where people are already doing well in their own way and have all the features you describe, we just need to not get in their way and that is what this whole framework of principles and national standards, devolved delivery is about. The ones who are great, let us support, give them the freedom and the flexibility and reward them for doing so. We also have to motivate and address those who are not and that is where some of the other techniques of providing information, having league tables, appealing to people's sense of competition, incentivising people to do better, investing in them through training and capacity building, these are the other things we can do to make sure there are more people shifting into that esteemed group of highly able public service deliverers of whom, as you say, we already have quite a number.

  693. Just finally, do you know what the public service ethos is?
  (Dr Thomson) I have seen it in the matter of your Committee so I can see the public service ethos is a subject you have given attention to. It is something that people talk about but it probably means something very personal to people. For me the public service ethos is very much about that sense of trust and common purpose and confidence which the public needs to have in their services. I think the sense of pride that people working in public services have, to me that is where the ethos is at its best. Of course, for me that is fine but the behaviour needs to live up to those lofty aspirations and I have spent most of my life in the public service, not just resting on our laurels of our great ethos but making sure that ethos is delivered in practice. In places like Newham people rely on public services a lot. We have a huge responsibility to deliver for them. When we fail their lives are deeply affected, so our first responsibility is to deliver.

  694. If I say do we just celebrate this thing or achieve it, you will probably say—having heard you for an hour or so—both, would you?
  (Dr Thomson) I would say you have to live it.

  695. Right. Very finally, this is the crunch question. You gave evidence about Newham earlier on, about how before you arrived everyone wanted to leave, after you had been there for a while they all wanted to stay. What I really want to know is—this is a seriously put question—do you think with your experience and knowledge that we can produce that kind of turnaround in people's feelings about public services in general over any kind of recognisable time period?
  (Dr Thomson) I think you can and I would just say one thing is that I would not want from today for you to think that I am taking responsibility for what has happened in Newham because that would not be a fair reflection. I think you saw right across public services in different times from the early to mid 1990s, late 1990s, a commitment to change and wherever that commitment is made by political leaders, well supported by officials, you have got a discernable change in a reasonable time frame, three or four years. It takes a collective effort of a shared vision and purpose.

  696. We will take that to be a note of hope at the end.
  (Dr Thomson) Yes.

  Chairman: We shall look with interest at developments. Thank you very much indeed for coming and talking to us this morning. We are most grateful.





 
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