Select Committee on Public Administration Twelfth Report

2  The Citizen's Charter

5. The Citizen's Charter represented a landmark shift in thinking about how public services are delivered in this country—a 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 services—which, 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 way:

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.[4] 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 Paper:[5]
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 charters.

9. The Citizen's Charter programme was underpinned by the following principles of public service, as set out in the White Paper:[6]

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.

Service First

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':

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:[8]

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.[9] Residual elements remain, however, such as the service standards that are still cited by some government departments and bodies.[10]

Impact of the Citizen's Charter

13. In many ways, it is easy to underestimate the impact of the Citizen's Charter programme—particularly since the Citizen's Charter is now best remembered for the much-derided Cones Hotline.[11] 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.[12] 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 practice—whether they were tangible entitlements that people could claim, or merely aspirations the Government hoped to reach.[13] 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, prospered.[14]

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".[15] 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]

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]

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 on—not 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

4   The Citizen's Charter: Raising the Standard, Cm 1599, July 1991, p 4 Back

5   Ibid, pp 8-9 Back

6   Ibid, p 5 Back

7   Cabinet Office, Service First: The New Charter Programme, June 1998, p 1 Back

8   Ibid, pp 37-38 Back

9 Back

10   Ev 205; another example is the Charity Commission's expression of the Service First standards at: Back

11   Qq 268-269 Back

12   For example, see "Major's public-service brainchild fails test", Financial Times, 14 March 1994, p 9 Back

13   T Wright and P Ngan, A New Social Contract: From Targets to Rights in Public Services, Fabian Society, March 2004, p 25 Back

14   Public Administration Select Committee, Choice, Voice and Public Services, para 233 Back

15   Public Service Committee, Third Report of Session 1996-97, The Citizen's Charter, HC 78-I, para 92 Back

16   Ibid, para 20 Back

17   Q 2 Back

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