The struggle for safe, sustainable public services

By Savi Hensman
June 9, 2018

The UK state is temporarily renationalising the East Coast rail service after failings by private contractors. Another private provider’s errors have damaged primary care and put patients at risk.

For 1.2 million older and other disabled people, there is a failure to get the social care they need , almost twice as many as in 2010, while some are deprived of social security payments so that they cannot afford food or heating. Children’s  and youth services  have been heavily cut. Morale has plummeted in much of the university sector , with mental health crises among students  and staff .

Public services are facing a crisis on a scale unknown over the past seven decades. These have largely been starved of funding, privatised to disastrous effect or expected to act as if they were profit-hungry corporations, damaging ‘customers’ and staff; or a combination. While violence has long been one of the functions of states, abuse and neglect of defenceless people have in some cases been made routine.

There are still pockets of caring, camaraderie and creativity, joy in work well done and connections made. Breakthroughs in knowledge benefit humankind. But often the self-esteem of employees – except for a few at the top who are ridiculously highly paid – and service users has been undermined. Opportunities are being wasted and, in some cases, lives cut short.

Yet building effective alliances between service users and those who serve them has proved difficult. It may be looking more closely at some of the obstacles and how these might be overcome.

Patchy provision and bad business

For many years in the post-war UK and beyond, it was widely agreed that a robust public sector was needed, for various reasons. As well as being humane and in accordance with human rights, it dampened discontent and enabled business to function more smoothly. Firms could hire employees who were well-nourished and educated, use roads and railways to transport goods which people could afford to buy. So it reflected a consensus among those with different interests.

But by the late 1970s, this was breaking down, with an ideological attack on the notion of public services and facilities . Neoliberal thinkers and their political allies expected ‘the market’ to provide, though in reality it failed to deliver except for a few. Indeed, even in businesses, short-term gains often took priority over longer-term prosperity. In several societies the gap between the rich and the rest grew

In relation to the overall value of goods and services produced, public spending shrank, damaging the economy as a whole. Though bureaucrats had not always been responsive to those they were supposed to serve, privatisation in some instances led to a marked drop in quality and poorer conditions for staff, as profit took priority. To make things worse, some public as well as private sector managers further damaged morale and wasted resources on repeated reorganisations, leading to ‘repetitive change syndrome . A target culture, based on obsession with measurement and often unrealistic goals – rather than relationship-building, learning and humility in the face of uncertainty – became widespread.

The 2008 international financial crisis highlighted the dangers of too much trust in markets. Yet in the UK, politicians from different parties downplayed this and the media largely made out that too much public spending was to blame, including over-generous welfare benefits. Also with media help, frustration was channelled against migrants, unemployed and disabled people.

The Conservative-led government which took power in 2010 managed to drive through austerity measures, further damaging public services and slowing economic recovery. Though failure to rein in pursuit of profit had led to the crash, ministers set out to get rid of regulations despite the risk to quality, health and safety, increasing the risk of disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. Crude commercialism also played a part, even if this cost more than it saved.

Over the past two or three years, the depth of the crisis, and renewed opposition, have led more people to challenge aspects of what has been happening.

The NHS crisis in the winter of 2017-18 focused attention on massive underfunding. There is an ongoing shortage of doctors, nurses and beds , perhaps made worse by poorly thought-through rationing which pushes up long-term needs. Some areas are ‘deserts’ for GP or social care

Inadequate funding of schools, as with other services, can be thought of in terms of facts and figures but take a personal toll, destroying young people’s joy in the present and hope for the future. The most vulnerable are often hardest hit.

The criminal justice system is heavily overstretched. Elsewhere too, cuts have wrought havoc, as has privatisation.

The failure of the contractor Carillion led many to criticise the ideologically-driven programme to outsource services to the private sector. Ongoing trouble with railways beyond East Coast rail, with services in northern England slashed, or run largely using antiquated carriages without wheelchair access, have caused further anger.

Attempts to imitate some of the worse aspects of the private sector have done further damage, for instance in higher education. These include cuts in staff pensions, insecurity, long working hours and loss of control, with sometimes devastating results , while top managers have enjoyed huge pay rises . This is part of an international trend , in which professionals increasingly experience the kind of control once applied mainly to industrial workers.

The withdrawal of free university education, as well as making it harder for low-income students, has added to a commercialised atmosphere. This means that research of huge potential value to society may be left undone and teaching relationships undermined. Ironically business leaders are often more aware of what may be lost when motivation is undermined and creativity fettered.

Information and communications technology could be life-enhancing and sometimes is. But today it is all too often associated with trapping public service employees in tasks which can be easily measured, even if these are not most important, lack of personal connection between staff and service users or surveillance.

Sometimes these services have become destructive not only to those who work in them but also to those they are meant to serve (there is of course, an overlap).

Violence has long been among the functions of the state, especially through the military. Police and prison officers are among others who might be expected to use coercion, though usually less extreme. But administering social security, for instance, has been corrupted to inflict what amounts to systemic abuse. Benefit sanctions, supposedly aimed at getting people into work, have failed, instead spreading misery . Flawed assessment processes have unjustly denied sick and disabled people much-needed benefits), often leaving them scared or humiliated as well as destitute.

Sometimes coercion may be hard to avoid, as when children’s services intervene after other ways of trying to protect a child fail. Yet cuts and a target culture have made it harder to provide the support to caregivers which might make this unnecessary; indeed even the basics they might be entitled to from the NHS and adult social care, which may help to support families under strain, may be withheld. Police may not have the resources to build relationships with communities that might prevent crime and terrorism, so may end up using more force, while rehabilitation of offenders by prison and probation staff may be neglected.

As staff have been driven away by poor pay or working conditions, Brexit and a generally ‘hostile environment’ for migrants have made it even harder to maintain basics. Constant checking of immigration status by public sector employers and landlords, universities and health providers as part of a ‘hostile environment’ inflict distress and sometimes injury on ethnic minorities. In some universities staff and students from overseas have been expected to account for their movements in ways many might find unbearable.

Homeless and disabled people can also be affected, if they do not have a passport or driving license and proof of address or cannot readily find this. Health professionals and managers have had to override their ethical principles and turn away people needing treatment . And if the high stress and loneliness of university life affect the mental health of an overseas student, so that they miss several lectures,the desire of  staff to care for that individual may be undermined by their duty to seek an excuse to have them deported .

Schools and early years centres, libraries and street lighting, flood defences and sports programmes – numerous public services have been starved of funds or otherwise undermined. There is widespread anger, among both employees and the public. Why, then, has it been so hard to resist effectively? There have been occasional strikes or lower-level industrial action, public campaigns especially over the NHS, student and service user protests. Yet these have often fizzled out or failed to draw in a wide enough base to make a major difference. It may be worth examining possible reasons and how these might be addressed.

The difficulties of rebuilding services and how these might be tackled

To begin with, industrial action by public sector workers tends to inconvenience the public or worse. So it may be portrayed as selfish, especially since so many private sector employees face poor pay and working conditions. In response to this, it may be worth emphasising that reducing demoralisation and overload among staff is part of a wider drive for safe and sustainable services. For instance health and social care staff have been understandably reluctant to strike but this has not protected service users from drastic immediate  and longer-term  harm. Elsewhere the damage may be more hidden but still damaging, even deadly – and worse may be yet to come unless workers resist, even if this causes some hardship.

It is also difficult to overcome the widespread belief that there is no alternative to austerity, though numerous leading economists and even official bodies have pointed out that it has damaged rather than assisted the economy. Sections of the mass media will almost certainly keep pushing the line that spending more on public services would be expensive to people on medium or low incomes and put their livelihoods at further risk. This will need to be countered more effectively.

Sometimes stress or despondency may make it difficult to do more than get by from one day to the next, for those who rely on or work in this sector. Rejoicing even in small victories – whether being helpful to someone in crisis or correcting an injustice – may be important to boost morale. (The person ‘helped’ may be a member of staff by a service user or caregiver: consideration and compassion can go both ways.)

Stronger alliances among unions and other staff-based groups, service user and community organisations and broadly progressive political parties would lead to more effective campaigning. One obstacle perhaps, is that, in recent decades, those with an interest in building a more just and humane society have tended to focus on specific struggles, sometimes downplaying others’ suffering. This may reflect widespread suspicion that a ‘bigger picture’ would perpetuate privilege or lead to domination by forcing people to fit their experiences into another’s framework. Yet, in faith communities for instance, sharing stories and seeing these as part of a bigger story which fosters care and hope can empower and re-energise.

Indeed fragmented efforts at change have been only partly successful, even within a particular focus. The legal rights of women, of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people, of British ethnic minorities and of disabled people have advanced greatly in recent decades. Yet the practical chances of getting help, for those without money and important connections, if they are bullied at work or denied high quality services, are often minimal. Solidarity and making connections are crucial.

To rebuild public services, simply harking back to a ‘golden age’ is not enough. Differences of power and privilege existed and were sometimes misused (whether by staff who could not be bothered or were domineering, snooty or otherwise prejudiced or by abusive or bigoted members of the public). Examining these and how work can be done in a more just and democratic way may be awkward but ultimately valuable.

It may also be helpful to explore connections among different types of public service and how these might fit into an economy and society geared towards human flourishing rather than profit or domination. This includes attention to those in regions where low social mobility and a declining industrial base have left many people demoralised. This re-examination may offer opportunities too for ‘beating swords into ploughshares’, so that skill and creativity can be used to enhance not destroy life.

The toll which recent decades have taken have left some employees and service users with a legacy of shame or guilt – for not being ‘strong’, ‘efficient’, ‘responsible’ or ‘resilient’ enough, being rated low in exams or league tables, neglecting family or letting workmates down, offering shoddy care or being treated as unworthy of respect and so forth. Moving away from a culture of constant individual blame to identifying systems’ failings, while recognising that no-one is wholly powerless, and offering and accepting healing and forgiveness where required will require effort and imagination.

It will not be easy to rebuild badly damaged public services. Yet if people of all faiths and none can learn from past successes and failures, build on and extend networks of resistance and tie in immediate struggles with dreams of a more just and compassionate world, such transformation is possible.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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