Examination of Witness (Questions 680
THURSDAY 13 DECEMBER 2001
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 wonderit is all very well, these
statistics, but we have got people here, we have got producers
and consumers herewhat 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
(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.
686. Are you saying quality only comes through
(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,
(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
(Dr Thomson) I think if the bus never came they would
probably like the choice of one which did.
(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?
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
(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?
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 weatherI do not mean in what you are sayingabout
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 sayhaving heard you for
an hour or soboth, 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 isthis is a seriously put questiondo 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
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.