2 The Citizen's Charter |
5. The Citizen's Charter represented a landmark shift
in thinking about how public services are delivered in this countrya
shift that saw the interests and perspective of service users
given much greater prominence. We thought it worthwhile to revisit
the ground covered by the Citizen's Charter for the insights it
could give us on how to improve public services today. It might
seem odd to go back nearly two decades for this. As we shall see,
however, the impetus of the Citizen's Charter initiative was to
put people first in the delivery of public serviceswhich,
apart from being the central theme of our inquiry, is a policy
goal that remains relevant to this day. This section therefore
considers the evolution of the Citizen's Charter programme and
its long-term impact.
The Citizen's Charter: background
6. The Citizen's Charter scheme was first launched
in 1991, with the aim of ensuring that public services were responsive
to the citizens they served. The then Prime Minister, John Major,
explained the intention of the Citizen's Charter in the following
It will work for quality across the whole range
of public services. It will give support to those who use services
in seeking better standards. People who depend on public servicespatients,
passengers, parents, pupils, benefit claimantsall must
know where they stand and what service they have a right to expect.
7. The emphasis of the Citizen's Charter was on citizens
as 'customers' of public services, and the levels of service provision
they could expect to receive. The Citizen's Charter scheme was
made up of several elements, including the Charter Mark, an award
to recognise excellence in the public sector, as well as the creation
of individual charters for public services that set out the standards
those services were expected to achieve. As the 1991 Citizen's
Charter White Paper declared, the scheme was not a uniform
"blueprint" for service provision, but a "toolkit"
to allow standards to be raised in the way most appropriate to
each service. A flavour
of what the Citizen's Charter meant for public services is given
by the proposals set out for education and housing in the White
|The Citizen's Charter: extract from summary of proposals (1991)
- parents' charter
- school reports on each child
- publication of schools' results in each area
- regular and independent inspection of schools
- regular information for parents
- improved local authority Tenants' Charter
- opportunities to transfer away from local authority control
- stronger Tenants' Guarantee for housing associations
- extending compulsory competitive tendering into the field of housing management
8. The most prominent aspect of the Citizen's Charter
initiative was the creation of the individual service charters.
The basic idea of the charters was that they would form a kind
of contract between service users and service providers. The charters
would inform citizens of their entitlements to public services,
and make clear to providers the level and standard of service
they in turn were committed to meet. By clarifying these commitments,
service providers were encouraged to improve both standards and
responsiveness to service users. By 1997, there were 42 national
charters covering the main public services and over 10,000 local
9. The Citizen's Charter programme was underpinned
by the following principles of public service, as set out in the
The Principles of Public Service (1991)
Every citizen is entitled to expect:
Explicit standards, published and prominently displayed at the point of delivery. These standards should invariably include courtesy and helpfulness from staff, accuracy in accordance with statutory entitlements, and a commitment to prompt action, which might be expressed in terms of a target response or waiting time. If targets are to be stretched, it may not be possible to guarantee them in every case; minimum, as well as average, standards may be necessary. There should be a clear presumption that standards will be progressively improved as services become more efficient.
There should be no secrecy about how public services are run, how much they cost, who is in charge, and whether or not they are meeting their standards. Public servants should not be anonymous. Save only where there is a real threat to their safety, all those who deal directly with the public should wear name badges and give their name on the telephone and in letters.
Full, accurate information should be readily available, in plain language, about what services are being provided. Targets should be published, together with full and audited information about the results achieved. Wherever possible, information should be in comparable form, so that there is a pressure to emulate the best.
The public sector should provide choice wherever practicable. The people affected by services should be consulted. Their views about the services they use should be sought regularly and systematically to inform decisions about what services should be provided.
Services should be available regardless of race or sex. Leaflets are being printed in minority languages where there is a need. In Wales public bodies are aware of the needs of Welsh speakers.
Services should be run to suit the convenience of customers, not staff. This means flexible opening hours, and telephone inquiry points that direct callers quickly to someone who can help them.
And if things go wrong?
At the very least, the citizen is entitled to a good explanation, or an apology. He or she should be told why the train is late, or why the doctor could not keep the appointment. There should be a well-publicised and readily available complaints procedure. If there is a serious problem, it should be put right. And lessons must be learnt so that mistakes are not repeated. Nobody wants to see money diverted from service improvement into large-scale compensation for indifferent services. But the Government intends to introduce new forms of redress where these can be made to stimulate rather than distract from efficiency.
10. The change in administration in 1997 led to a re-evaluation
of the Citizen's Charter scheme, although its core purpose and
principles remained broadly similar. In 1998 the Government introduced
'Service First: The New Charter Programme':
We want public services that respond to the needs and wishes
of people who use them on a daily basis, which give public servants
the chance to show their dedication, enthusiasm and initiative,
and which work together to improve the communities they serve.
We think it right that all public servicesnationally
and locallyshould set out clear standards of service, and
report on their performance; should consult and involve their
users in carrying out these tasks; and should provide effective
remedies when things go wrong.
11. In addition to the elements of the Charter programme
already in place, six service standards for central government
departments and agencies were introduced. These were reported
on annually, and read as follows:
The Six Service Standards for Central Government (1997)
In serving you, every central government department and agency will aim to do the following:
1. Answer your letters quickly and clearly. Each department and agency will set a target for answering letters and will publish its performance against this target.
2. See you within 10 minutes of any appointment you have made at its office.
3. Provide clear and straightforward information about its services and at least one number for telephone enquiries to help you or to put you in touch with someone else.
4. Consult its users regularly about the services it provides and report on the results.
5. Have at least one complaints procedure for the services it provides, and send you information about a procedure if you ask.
6. Do everything that is reasonably possible to make its services available to everyone, including people with special needs.
12. Service First seems to have largely disappeared. The Cabinet
Office website, which makes information on the Service First programme
available for archive purposes, notes that the programme itself
has now been completed.
Residual elements remain, however, such as the service standards
that are still cited by some government departments and bodies.
Impact of the Citizen's Charter
13. In many ways, it is easy to underestimate the impact of the
Citizen's Charter programmeparticularly since the Citizen's
Charter is now best remembered for the much-derided Cones Hotline.
Contemporary assessments of the Citizen's Charter programme were
often critical, particularly on the grounds that the promises
contained in the service charters were so vague as to be meaningless.
It is certainly a valid criticism that the Citizen's Charter was
muddled in its approach, particularly on the core issue of what
the charter promises actually meant in practicewhether
they were tangible entitlements that people could claim, or merely
aspirations the Government hoped to reach.
Our predecessor Committee, in its report on Choice, Voice and
Public Services, noted that:
The Citizen's Charter lost public respect because it was seen
as being too confused in its objectives. However the basic idea,
that public services should operate at a minimum standard of performance,
whatever the provider, is one that has survived and, to an extent,
In Chapter 4 we take up the idea of setting entitlements to public
services, and outline how the Government could revive this idea
with a stronger, clearer emphasis on giving people the ability
to claim specific entitlements to public services.
14. Despite the criticisms, it is still the case
that the Charter programme was one of the clearest articulations
of the need to focus on the experience of public service users,
and for services to be responsive to the people using them. It
also popularised the ideas that performance should be measured
and measurements made public, and that information about services
should be readily available in plain language.
15. The Public Service Committee concluded in its
1997 report on The Citizen's Charter that the initiative
had made "a valuable contribution to improving public services".
In particular, that Committee found that the Citizen's Charter
had led to improvements in the delivery, culture and responsiveness
of many services. The Public Service Committee acknowledged that
not all of the observed changes to public services were directly
attributable to the Charter's implementation, but that it had
certainly played a key role:
The Charter, it is plain, has to a great extent
swept away the public's deference towards the providers of public
services, and their readiness to accept poor services, and has
taught providers to welcome the views of users as a positive assistance
to good management.
16. It is, perhaps, time to reconsider the Citizen's
Charter programme and reassess what lessons it has for public
service provision today. Looking back at the Citizen's Charter
programme now, the Parliamentary Ombudsman told us:
in a strange sort of way it seems as if
it has all been downhill since the Citizen's Charter. That really
is more me saying something positive about the Citizen's Charter
than necessarily negative about the state of things now. It seemed
there was so much of value in that which was built on and then
seemed to wither on the vine a bit.
17. The Citizen's Charter has had a lasting impact
on how public services are viewed in this country. The initiative's
underlying principles retain their validity nearly two decades
onnot least the importance of putting the interests of
public service users at the heart of public service provision.
We believe this cardinal principle should continue to influence
public service reform, and encourage the Government to maintain
the aims of the Citizen's Charter programme given their continuing
relevance to public service delivery today.
3 Speech by Rt Hon John Major MP to Conservative Central
Council annual meeting, 23 March 1991 Back
The Citizen's Charter: Raising the Standard, Cm 1599, July
1991, p 4 Back
Ibid, pp 8-9 Back
Ibid, p 5 Back
Cabinet Office, Service First: The New Charter Programme,
June 1998, p 1 Back
Ibid, pp 37-38 Back
Ev 205; another example is the Charity Commission's expression
of the Service First standards at: http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/tcc/ccstand.asp Back
Qq 268-269 Back
For example, see "Major's public-service brainchild fails
test", Financial Times, 14 March 1994, p 9 Back
T Wright and P Ngan, A New Social Contract: From Targets to
Rights in Public Services, Fabian Society, March 2004, p 25 Back
Public Administration Select Committee, Choice, Voice and Public
Services, para 233 Back
Public Service Committee, Third Report of Session 1996-97, The
Citizen's Charter, HC 78-I, para 92 Back
Ibid, para 20 Back
Q 2 Back