Across the public sector there is some trepidation over the likely size of cuts after 2016 – whoever wins the election. So far, as we have reported every year since 2010, public services have coped relatively well with cuts. Satisfaction with most services, except road maintenance and social services, has been largely maintained or improved. However we are starting to face hard choices. Most of the public are now worried about the future funding of the NHS (88%) and it is now seen as a bigger issue than the economy in our monthly surveys, and there is reduced support for further cuts, compared to 2010.
With rising individualism and a political discourse that is framed around notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’ does the notion of ‘public service’ still have resonance in modern Britain? The simple answer is yes, although each generation is very different when it comes to thinking about this. Around seven in ten of those born before 1945 agree that the creation of the welfare state is one of ‘Britain’s proudest achievements’, twice the proportion of those from Generation Y (born post-1980) who say the same, and their views aren’t changing.
But all generations still value public services as benefiting the whole community, and available to everyone. These views have barely shifted since 2001; the financial crash and subsequent years of austerity have not changed our fundamental values. As the Olympics showed us, public services like the NHS help foster a sense of national identity and pride – they’re something that the UK is thought to do well and be renowned for.
Few believe the current government’s plans will improve public services – although under Labour, with rapid increases in spending, perceptions were very similar – government can never expect to be thanked for its efforts!
While political parties might not talk about public services in terms of universal entitlement any more, this still matters to the public. Some three in ten say public services need to provide exactly the same services to everyone, regardless of their situation in life (30%, an increase of 11 percentage points from 2010).
Recession and falls in real wages have left many more reliant on state support or more aware of how easy it would be to end up dependant on welfare. Universalism therefore becomes more of a priority in a time of scarcity, compared to boom years when more people can afford private alternatives, although sympathy for the working age unemployed remains limited.
But universality alone is not enough. How people are treated matters a great deal as well; eight in ten agree that treating people with dignity and respect is as important as the outcome. Value for money is also important. As usual the British want good value, universal services – but whether they can have them at current tax rates remains unclear.
In an age of increasingly personalised products and services in the private sector, the public sector is struggling to keep up – only one in four feel public services really understand their needs. A decade or more of efforts to ‘empower’ users has had no measurable impact on perceptions of ability to influence services (although of course, we cannot tell what perceptions would be without these efforts).
As we trudge through more years of cuts in public spending, most of us agree that different public services working together more often would improve the quality of services we receive. The pressures on future budgets mean we may finally see what pundits have talked about for so long, in terms of reconfigured, more efficient services and creative public private partnerships rather than lowest common denominator services. More likely, being British, we will muddle through.