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The Citizen’s Charter

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The United Kingdom Citizen’s Charter development manifesto was a poor public relations stunt. Prime Minister John Major’s symbolic big idea in 1991 was missed by most and the only noticeable mark left by this redefinition of state and subject alike is that it changed little despite the hype and pretence.

The underlying notion behind the Citizen’s Charter was to provide customer care. It encouraged organisations to put people’s needs first, whilst also acknowledging public responsibility. Its basic objectives of making public services more accountable, efficient and consumer responsive by raising quality, choices, and redress were admirable, but not realised.

The Charter was described as a ten year programme of radical public sector reforms and restrictions on the powers of bureaucracy, whilst assigning greater power to the ‘citizen’. In theory this sounded promising. The theoretical background of the Charter was linked to the French notion of citizen and the historical clout that accompanies it.

The populace of the United Kingdom are subjects of the Crown, not citizens of a State or Republic, and as such have no real positive rights but rather negative liberties. The two are subtly different and very distinct in the powers they convey. There are no entrenched and recognised freedoms of personal ‘liberty, equality and solidarity’ and in short fall very short of T. H. Marshall’s model incorporating civil, political and social rights1).

The Charter did not attempt to remedy this, despite its ambitious and misleading title. An indirect redefinition was involved, concentrating on an economic angle rather than a political one. Under the Charter the subject evolved into a consumer, with emphasis directed to rights of choice and quality but with little reference to duties. These rights were acquired by payment of taxes, not through collective community membership. The consumer emerged as an individual with specific needs and an almost constitutional right to have them catered to by the state.

This reflected a tripartite evolution from a subject as a user of services, entitled by need under the themes surrounding the welfare state, moving to a consumer where he was reconceived as a paying customer with entitlements beyond mere satisfaction of need. This individual has rights to expect quality in his services. In the final transformation of our man next door becomes an economic actor; a consumer empowered with a quasi contractual relationship with the service provider. The strength behind him is the significance of private law redress, equitable remedy and public recognition of the two.

There was been an attempt to redress the balance between provider and purchaser; if not to equilibrium then to at least no monopoly of power and rights by an unaccountable state. There is a more accountable and direct relationship between the state and citizen, through involvement in determining the services available to him. That at least was the inspiration behind the Citizen’s Charter. It was quoted as a genuine philosophy of government, but by its implementation became a means of government.

Complaint is arguably the main tool afforded to the individual. Rectification for breach of promises and standards is highly esteemed with a redress of existing complaints procedures and creation of others. They are intended to be real alternatives to common law methods available, faster, more effective and more responsive due to their proximity and implied understanding of the situation that this will involve. Being integral and internal to the service or utility being complained of carries several alleged advantages for the procedure. A more in-depth understanding of the problem is assumed; knowledge and resources available to the adjudicator that would not be to an official divorced from the problem. Field expertise would promote a speedy evaluation of its merit, and redress and feedback created should be readily absorbed into the service to prevent the problem reoccurring.

The only identifiable problem would be one of independence and a possible lack of it, for example the Press Complaints Commission. A complaints mechanism must be independent, but it must also be seen as independent. Outside control is available if internal mechanisms prove to be unfruitful via the now obsolete ombudsman, the Complaints Task Force, regulators and the administrative legacy of legitimate expectations afforded by these consumer contracts.

The constitutional reinvention however was twofold. Not satisfied with reshaping the role or rights or activity of British citizens the Charter also tried to redefine the State that serves them, most notably the public sector. A re-examination of what remains as the core public sector paved the way for the rest to be fragmented and consumed by private sector theories.

The goals were greater efficiency and accountability, and less involvement by the government; the role being reduced to that of a mere regulatory function or an empowering jurisdiction of initial and final resort. Full scale privatisation of all public sector services and utilities is not politically acceptable, the public demanding that responsibility for certain functions rests with their elected representatives. However the principles behind privatisation; improvement of quality and service and a reduction in cost, were evident throughout. Where the Charter failed to recreate a utopian market atmosphere, it would mimic it, with all efforts concentrated on separating policy from its implementation.

Following on from the Next Steps management restructuring, the Charter set out to define what this management should deliver and ensuring that it does so by holding it accountable for failure. Free market mechanisms were employed to raise the quality of the services provided; encouraging pressure, competition, rivalry, allowing increased choice. To keep ahead of the competition created there were devices such as performance related pay, publication of targets and goals and the improved complaints systems.

Yardsticks were established for service satisfaction and compensation for disappointment made more readily available. Hence, better quality and performance, but this higher standard must be maintained at a cost reduction. The complacency of the monopolised state system was to be abolished, with this new form of pressure also applied to the natural monopolies.

Contracting out and compulsory tendering for established state services also incorporate some demons of the private dimension. Higher standards, Openness, Information, Responsiveness and Redress; they are all punchy, modern and authoritative principles, yet vague enough to be ‘stretched around any misshapen and misconceived implementation of this Charter’.

So what was the impact of this ‘toolkit of initiatives and ideas’; nationally, locally, legally or personally. Nationally the potential was huge; a reinvention of the state, changing its form and shape beyond recognition and beyond redress. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Dorrell, claimed such radical reform was acceptable without consultation to the electorate as those implementing the process are ‘the electorate’s representatives’. The nation's infrastructure being demolished and superficially rebuilt without any form of constitutional safeguard, consultation or authority; whereby the citizen should apparently be safe as the elected government is doing it on their behalf. Some assert this was a cynical exercise to paper over the constitutional cracks, others that it was a triumph for customer needs and rights.

On a local level, some claimed its role would be reduced by the implications of the consumer contracts that follow. It was plausible and encouraged that if services were not performed in the manner expected and been promised one could complain directly to the company concerned and receive either a preferred change, or an explanation of why it cannot be done and a voucher for the trouble. However local government’s role was still a necessity by way of a regulatory body and another form of redress should the informal, internal complaints mechanism fail.

The legal effects seemed significant at first glance, but on closer inspection it’s clear that the Charter conferred no legal entitlements as such. Far from offering a judicial review bypass, the promised internal complaints system expansions allowed an additional means of redress as contrasted to an alternative one, based very much in equity rather than law.

The real driving force behind this approach was satisfaction of consumer needs, with little assessment of whether such an ideal was attainable. Self interest would have made for quite different ethos behind ensuring the performance of these Charter documents, rather than collective desire for improvement in general.

Acknowledging that the state consists of individuals, and accrediting each with a voice and a will to have it heard, the Government either overestimated, or was underestimated. Flattery is the highest form of persuasion; the notion that the average member of the public would appreciate an apology, explanation or a voucher is perhaps not as incredible as it may suggest.

There was however no legal entitlement to these things under the Charter provisions and it is undeniable that it is easier to satisfy a small minority of people who will actually make the effort to complain about a fault than to spend vast sums in fixing it. The smokescreen put up by the Charter was an underhanded way of convincing the nation that people are empowered and in control whilst the government and the services continue as they have always done, but scoring points for their efforts.

The supposed pressure placed on services like the NHS, railways and schools to aspire to certain standards and achieve certain goals in that framework was as false a concept as the initial market mimicking. Government would still control the agenda, and despite the protestations of consulting the populace, an unfavourable research survey would possibly be gagged in red tape and the public left none the wiser. So too regarding league tables and targets; how difficult is it for a school, hospital or prison to set a target they have no difficulty in reaching.

Attainment of standards can be as superficial as the powers given to the receivers of them. The Charter documents were not legal contracts, rather customer guarantees. No account was taken of geographical or outward pressures, and the intent to ascribe a feeling of importance was hollow, insulting and counter-productive.

The main failing of the Charter was the underlying ethos; that of efficiency, getting more for the money available, or more imaginative and innovative management with no extra resources.

All is possible, if not for the emphasis given to the power of complaint and the right to redress. The two were set for an unhappy union as twin themes of this radical plan. The financial constraints on the services to improve their standards, quality and performance and then to maintain such higher levels at the risk of being obligated to compensating for failure could lead to three possible scenarios.

The first occurs when the new and improving service hears all complaints quickly, efficiently and personally but simply returns efficient, polite and useless apologies; an inability to address the problem or redress the complainant through a stagnation of money available. The second follows automatic compensation leading to prohibitive costs that will impair the whole service and undermine the infrastructure of it. The third outcome is the worst and was potentially the most likely to arrive. The citizen was in danger of witnessing a hierarchy of public services culture, where funds are taken from the subservient to appease and accommodate the dominant. Prioritisation does not however equate to value for money.

The redefinition of the British subject and the British state under the Charter demonstrated a clear contrast between ambitions and results. Many 'citizens' would likely still have felt that it was not worth complaining, with no expectation of public sector satisfaction.

References

1) Citizenship and Social Class (Marshall, T.H.) 1950

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