Citizen consumers? Using public services is not like shopping

The government's new white paper on health seems to suggest that patients should be offered more choice. However, visiting the doctor or phoning the police is simply not like shopping, according to people questioned for a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which found that most of us reject the trend towards treating everyone as 'consumers'.

We see public services as different from the market-place and value their 'publicness', according to the project led by Professor John Clarke of the Open University, Milton Keynes.

The study part of the joint ESRC and Arts and Humanities Research Council's Cultures of Consumption programme gathered the views of people in two urban areas one in the North-West and the other in the South-East. It involved managers, front line staff and users of health, police and social care services in both places.

Professor Clarke said:"The idea that people expect to be treated as consumers by public services has become a central theme in public service reform under New Labour.

Our research explored what people who provide and use public services thought about this idea, and the changes it is bringing about.

"We found that people have many relationships with public services.

They are citizens, experts, taxpayers and voters as well as users, and they see themselves as part of wider bodies as members of the public or local communities.

"When people approach health, police or social agencies, they do not always know what they want. They hope to meet staff who will respect them and help them make important decisions."

According to the report, more than half of staff and those using the services saw the relationship as being members of the local community or the wider public.

Around one third regarded people as service users. While many preferred terms such as service user or patient, fewer than one in five thought of them as consumers o

Contact: Alexandra Saxon
Economic & Social Research Council

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