Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

Rethinking Public Services

Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

Rethinking Public Services

Article excerpt

Rethinking Public Services Rajiv Prabhakar Palgrave 2006

Reviewed by Barry Quirk

Just before Christmas 2006, over nearly 11 million people watched the final of Strictly Come Dancing and almost 10 million watched the final of the X Factor. Was this a triumph of a not-for-profit public service over profitseeking private service? Is Bruce Forsyth a public servant and Simon Cowell a private entrepreneur? The boundaries between public and private are considerably more fluid than our fixed mental models usually suggest. And this is the purpose of this new book-to alter our mental models of what public services are.

Rethinking Public Services is the most recent book in the series Government Beyond the Centre.The series is proof that not all academics are fixated on Whitehall: that it is feasible to theorise about the changing nature of the state and examine the changing shape of public services in places and institutions some distancefrom SW1.The seriesfocuses principally, but not exclusively, on local government.

This particular volume is an attempt by Rajiv Prabhakar, a distinguished researcher at the LSE, to blend a number of important political themes together in one text. Prabhakar wrote the book while he was a fellow of the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the LSE. As might be expected the book is entirely about 'first principles', about the theory of public services and the state.Those attracted to first principles thinking will find much in the text to inform and illuminate: those of a more empirical bent who search for evidence and find comfort in regression analyses will be disappointed as will those readers who are predisposed to qualitative insight.

Prabhakar begins by stating that his aim is to suggest an approach which breaks with the 'states versus markets' debates that shaped thinking in the last century. He suggests, a little tentatively, that 'third way' thinking can help frame a new approach to public services which accepts the limits of central planning, fosters greater citizen choice over public services and establishes an enhanced role for non-profit mutual organisations in the delivery of public services. His argument 'shares a common ground with a number of recent accounts that go beyond a paternalistic view of public services in which users absorb services from a class of professional'. But the book avoids any consideration of public service reform. Prabhakar recognises the importance of reform but seeks only to set a theoretical foundation from which others can base their reforms. It has to be said that this gives the reader a lot to do.

At first reading the different steps in Prabhakar's theoretical foundations seemed to be stumbling blocks.They are four-fold: first, a new model of citizenship, which stresses both the capability and the responsibility of citizens and its bearing on the exercise of choice and voice; second, a critical assessment of Hayek's concept of tacit knowledge and its bearing on the limits of centralised planning; third, the likely impact on public agencies and public service professionals of more systematic user engagement; and fourth, the prospects and limits of new organisational models such as the 'public interest company'. However, Prabhakar weaves these apparently disparate points together to make a strong argument about how public service can change and develop. …

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