Comment – Just who is pulling the strings?

The UK’s public services cost about £300bn a year, employ one in five of the working population and affect pretty well everyone. Yet to many people they remain a deep mystery.

In a general sort of way, one knows they collect taxes, deliver social security benefits, provide health and education services and a great many other things we need. But many people have a curious fatalism about the public services. When they are good – and they usually are – they are taken for granted. And when they go wrong, which isn’t often but can be pretty prominent – for instance, the current problems at the Passport Agency – often we find our prejudices spring out and we say, ‘well, that’s what you expect from the public sector’.

In fact, there have been great improvements to public services over the last 20 years. People with memories that go back to 1980 should think about this. Public services have changed, not least because of greater involvement by the private sector through privatisation, public-private partnerships and other similar ideas. Everybody now knows that the private sector can deliver public services as well as the public sector, and there is a healthy blurring of the Berlin Wall that used to exist.

Now we see Tony Blair talking about the need to build on all this and to move forward, which is something everyone ought to support. The public services are nowhere near perfect, and there will always be room for development. Blair may be over the top in talking about his scars, but he is right in pointing out the difficulties and the need.

Whatever the press says, Blair and Prescott have been consistent. Prescott rightly points to what the public services have done in the past and Blair rightly points to the need for further development. It would be a pity if people saw this as some kind of political spectator sport. It is not.

The result matters. If further improvement and modernisation does not take place, public services will not improve, and costs and taxes will go up.

The private sector has to be interested, not just in encouraging better services, still less in sounding off when things go wrong, but actively in helping to reach for improvement.

It is no good people out there thinking that it is nothing to do with them and that good service will come as normal and the occasional mess-up is inevitable. A greater involvement and understanding of the issues is needed.

Sir Peter Kemp is chief executive of the Foundation for Accountancy and Financial Management.

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