This is a piece I wrote, in Guardian Public recently, arguing against the fiscally-motivated distinction between the nice, local, professional aspect of public services, and the nasty, out-sourcable, bureaucratic aspect of public services:
Anyone looking for an example of how e-government improves public services need look no further than the Oyster Card, the smart travel card now used across London’s tube and bus network. The user tops up its credit online, and swipe it quickly over a scanner when entering a station or bus. Ticket office queues disappear, ticket barriers magically open, and suddenly the tube starts to feel user-friendly.
Oyster Cards are a success. Londoners have embraced them, and last year they won the New Statesman New Media Award prize for ‘Modernising Government’. But scratch beneath the surface, and one discovers contradictions that characterise this Government’s attitude towards public services.
In the current policy climate, e-government is a way of achieving public sector efficiency savings. This is either through reorganising back offices, or through increasing the availability and uptake of more efficient service channels, such as call centres and the internet. Inevitably this involves job cuts, although the rhetorical emphasis is firmly on ‘releasing resources to the front line’. Such is the critical political distinction underpinning current public service reform: that between the ‘bureaucrat’ and the ‘front line professional’.
Bureaucracy, according to this thinking, is simply a process, a means to an end. There can be nothing intrinsically ‘public’ about it, and if it could all be automated electronically, then that would be a welcome fiscal achievement. Failing that, it should be relocated to anywhere that has the technological and social infrastructure to carry it out more cheaply. The ultimate goal is the ‘self service’ model of government, in which ‘customers’ use technology to interact with government electronically, where they like and when they like, without the inconvenience of queues or administrative staff.
‘The Front Line’, by contrast, is presented as the home of socially engaged professionals. The celebration of nurses, teachers and policemen plays well in the papers, but there is also something more profound going on. Against a backdrop of automation, relocation and down-sizing, the front-line professional performs the uniquely human functions that machines can’t. According to this mindset, there may be no efficient or convenient way of providing care to the sick, but this is a vocational duty and not an administrative chore.
Unlike bureaucrats, government views these precious employees as geographically embedded. Schools have long been seen as the hub of the local community, but the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has recently promised to engage neighbourhoods in the delivery of other public services. The agendas of public service reform, Active Communities, and New Localism all look set to collide in the form of Neighbourhood Governance.
Such is the schizophrenia of contemporary policy. The unfortunate bureaucrat is stigmatised, out-sourced, or automated out of existence. The noble front-line professional, meanwhile, is a sensitive and caring sort who carries responsibility for the very ‘publicness’ of local services. This may be a slight caricature, but it captures something of the key fault line in public services in 2005. And so what has any of this to do with Oyster Cards?
The example of Oyster Cards undermines this analysis on two fronts. Firstly, it is by no means clear that successful technology reduces the need for administrative staff at all. Only a small minority of British people embrace technological innovation for its own sake, so most people constantly require help as they grapple with digital infrastructure. The self-service model is not necessarily what the ‘customer’ wants.
Fortunately for passengers, tube stations are still run by the public sector, and employ mostly dedicated staff, for long periods at the same station. One wouldn’t term these people ‘front line professionals’; but they are embedded in their communities like teachers, and they accumulate knowledge over time like doctors. So are they ‘back office’ or ‘front line’? Are they part of the Localist agenda or not? On both counts, it isn’t clear.
It may be that, over time, people accommodate the technology, and that staff become gradually superfluous. Stations could become hyper-efficient ghost towns, with passengers passing through effortlessly. But here lies the second, more profound tension in current public service thinking: does successful automation of services actually lead to a more satisfied public? Or to put it another way, should convenience be the goal for public services in the first place? Not necessarily.
As technology gets better, it becomes invisible, and services more customer-centric. Indeed the only times that the institutions behind successful e-government become noticed is when something breaks – which is where the problem lies. The egocentric Oyster Card holder expects services to revolve around his needs and wishes, and anything related to the day-to-day challenges of managing infrastructure starts to look like intolerable inconvenience. Research on internet banking shows that customers like using the technology precisely because they dislike engaging with their bank.
The question is how two quite so divergent agendas will affect one another. How can we be expected to act as engaged and patient citizens around our local school, when elsewhere we have been indulged as impatient and unreasonable consumers? How can a public service ethos be saved at ‘the front line’, when it is being crushed in the arbitrarily-defined ‘back office’?
Middle grounds need to be identified. Services are not either face-to-face or electronic, but often a combination of the two. Administration is not inherently placeless and Kafkaesque, any more than local communities are inherently humane and vibrant. E-government needs to rediscover e-democracy, transactional services require a participative dimension. This is by no means straight forward, but the reality of e-government never is.