Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Is choice power?

Guest post by Graeme Cook.

The debate about choice and power at the launch of Open Left could be another that is significant for the future of the Left.


Over the past few years the issue of choice - particularly in public services - has been a polarising one within the British Left. This is partly because it has been seen as emblematic of a wider set of political goals and methods. Are you for individuals or the collective? Are you for markets or the state? Are you for solidarity or atomisation? We covered all this ground at the launch event this week.


Elements of these distinctions are real and meaningful. But in truth, some is more rhetoric than reality. As I was listening to the discussion, it struck me that in thinking about choice as being fundamentally about power, and in broadening our understanding of how this power is distributed and exercised, there is a different way of approaching this debate.


What’s interesting is that having your voice heard and having agency over your life are notions of power which most people in the Left would endorse in the context of, say, the political process or the workplace. We want radical democratic reform precisely to give voters greater power over political decision making. We value trade unions because we want workers to have power in the workplace. So, is it possible to think of power in public services in a similar way?


First, we'd have to think about the impact of one person exercising their power on other people, because public services are one of the domains where we come together and care about more than just ourselves. Second, we'd need to take seriously the way power is distributed and, specifically, how to design policies which increase the power of the powerless (not amplify power inequalities). Third, we'd have to broaden out from just individual power to think about how people acting together could exercise their collective power. And fourth, we'd need to develop a set of principles to judge where power should reside within particular services and how people should be able to deploy it.


The next question, of course, is what does this mean for policy. I don't claim that these are all new thoughts and there are already some examples of these ideas in our public services. But this is an issue which Open Left wants to explore, test out and work through as part of renewing the thinking and ideas of the Left.

Graeme Cook is the head of the Open Left project at Demos.

13 comments:

Stuart White said...

Thanks for this, Graeme.

I think your third point, about moving from a purely individualised to a collective conception of power in public services is an important one. Part of the criticism of 'choice' from the left is that it allegedly fosters a purely consumerist attitude to public services at the expense of citizenship. More collective conceptions of co-production offer a way of integrating power with the cultivation of a sense of shared, problem-solving citizenship.

That said, I am sure it is too simplistic to see it as an either/or - choice or voice. The really interesting, and challenging, work, in my view, will be on how to combine the two, e.g., perhaps the design of individualised choice mechanisms could be a matter for local, collective deliberation.

Rachael Jolley said...

Surely the problem with choice is the question of what happens to the institutions that are not chosen?

Rick Muir said...

Agree with this Graeme. Start with power, not choice. Giving people greater agency and control should be one of the objectives of public service reform - not a narrow focus on individual choice/exit power. It is easy to imagine more individual choice empowering the pushy and the well-connected while disempowering those the left is here to defend. If empowerment is one of the ends - we can then have a much more pluralist approach to the means.

Graeme said...

Rachel - I would frame the issue in a slightly different way: what happens to the PEOPLE affected by the institutions that are not chosen?

That's why I say that in designing policy we need to think about the impact of one person's choice on the choices/power of others. I also think that this could be one way to improve institutions.

I'm not sure I would prioritise institutions in that way. Good institutions are vital, but isn't defending a failing institution a bit conservative?

donpaskini said...

Hi Graeme,

Interesting article.

I think any discussion of choice in public services also needs to consider resources.

For example, greater "choice" in social housing allocations is determined much more by supply of housing than by housing allocations policies. Similarly, personalised budgets in social care will require greater overall levels of resources if they are to avoid disempowering people.

There's also an issue about choice vs conditionality - e.g. Purnell's welfare reforms are the exact opposite of using choice to increase the power of the poorest.

Graeme said...

Agree - can't avoid the resource question.

Not sure I agree on welfare reforms though. I would defend the principle of conditionality for two reasons (I also do think having a job is an important source of power, and not just because of the income it brings).

First, I believe a core left wing principle is mutual obligations. I think it is therefore reasonable to ask people to take reasonable steps back towards work if they are receiving state support.

Second, there is actually pretty good evidence that encouraging people to engage with support to get back to work has a positive effect on people's chances of getting a job. Analysis suggests that the consequence of all jobsearch requirements being relaxed in the mid 1980's was that unemployment peaked four percentage points higher than it would otherwise have done. That's not left-wing, it's just more people without the dignity and purpose of work.

Of course you need to make sure that conditionality is designed and implemented in a fair way. Paul Gregg's proposals were all about trying to increase people's control over the welfare services they use (backed up by an expectation that they would engage). It's also why a claimant's charter is so important (something James Purnell advocated at DWP).

John said...

Choice in public services is a really interesting concept.

What kinds of choice are there? Which realms of public services have choice, should have choice, don't need coice? How do these kinds of choice empower or disempower people?

Openleft should also discuss voice (democracy) and entitlementes and systems of redress.

donpaskini said...

Hi Graeme,

Would be interested to see that analysis about jobsearch requirements in the 1980s.

At a conceptual level, there is clearly a trade-off here between choice and conditionality/mutual obligations which is probably worth exploring further.

Re: welfare reforms, agree on the need for a claimants' charter. Reversing the trend towards handing out contracts covering very large areas would also be a big step forwards.

Rachael Jolley said...

Graeme - I think there is a question of what happens to the failing resources/institutions/schools? Do they still get abandoned or do they get an injection of cash to improve them or do a section of society end up having to use them as they are?

What often happens with choice seems to be that there is a fight to get access to the "best" resources and the rest of the public is left using the rest. How do we avoid this? If there is choice, isn't there always winners and losers?

Stuart White said...

My worry about the mutual obligations defence of conditionality is that its asymmetric. It involves pressuring the disadvantaged to meet obligations while, across the wider policy domain, the more affluent are left free to ignore their obligations. It amounts to the more affluent coercing the poor to meet their side of the social contract, while the affluent ignore theirs ('Inheritance tax? How dare you!')

Of course, it might still be true that on balance conditionality is good for the welfare claimant - that's an empirical question, obviously. But assuming this is true, the justification for conditionality is then a paternalist one, not one about mutual obligations.

If the justification is paternalist, however, then one has to explain why paternalism is justifiable in this specific context, but not in others. There are all kinds of paternalistic coercions the state could engage in which might make lives better. But the presumption is usually against paternalism because we think individuals should take responsibility for their own lives (because we value choice). So if paternalism is wrong in general, why does it suddenly become OK specifically in relation to the welfare poor?

John said...

The challenge for Openleft will be figuring out how to expand choice without denying anyone the high quality public services they need.

Or is it morally acceptable to have a situation where those who don't get their name down first, are only able to choose from a lower quality selection of schools and hospitals to be treated at? Surely some will need to go to a specific hospital more than others.

If anything, this highlights a need for a greater collective co-operative effort in distributing resources in public services, as it's the only way to get the resources to the people who need them.

Graeme said...

Rachel - the concern you are expressing is exactly why I say you've got to think about the impact of choice policies more broadly than just on the person making the choice. I guess I just think we should use all the tools in the box to improve services for people. Part of that is investment, leadership, professionalism, basic standards etc - and part of it (I think) is about making the users powerful. Obviously there is a balance to be struck.

Stuart - I agree that we should think about mutual obligations more broadly - and consider power inequalities that are brought to the table when those obligations are exercised or enforced.

The empirical justification is an important one for me because it is so often asserted that conditionality is about 'punishing people' when I think it is about engaging with people and not saying that the limit of our aspirations for them is to be left alone (often with not much money). Clearly we need to be mindful to make sure this is the impact in practice.

I also think you slightly overplay the paternalism point. All conditionality says is that in return for financial support from the state you should take reasonable steps to get back towards work. I would like a system where the actual content on these steps is much more the product of dialogue between individuals and personal advisers.

Penny Red said...

The trouble is that 'choice', like 'freedom', is a word that can be bent to fit any expedient political meaning. On an ontological level, choice is not something you can own a given amount of. We can't just set out to give people 'choice' without specifying choice over what? Choice between which options?

And again, in many public services choice is not the greatest good. People don't, for example, choose to invest in private healthcare because they want greater choice over where and by whom they are treated - they invest in private healthcare because they want to be treated faster, more hygenically and in more comfort than is available on the NHS. Investing in the NHS to reduce waiting times wouldn't do anything to increase choice, but it will do more to solve that problem. For many people using public services, especially those who can't afford to pay for education, health or anything else privately, quality of service, not choice, is still the number one issue - and the prioritisation of 'choice' obscures that agenda.

Laurie Penny.