Opinion: Those Future Services wonks

Lisa Harker, chair of the Daycare Trust, but writes in a personal capacity

I have high hopes for Future Services - the joint initiative set up by the CBI, the National Consumer Council and the NCVO - which is attempting to introduce the voice of citizens to the public service reform debate.

No-one really disagrees with the view that public services ought to be shaped by the views and needs of citizens. But policy discussions about changes to public services, including the future role of the voluntary sector, have so far been conducted by policy wonks and journalists. The public's voice has been missing from the debate. By giving a voice to "individuals whose needs are not articulated or are not heard", Future Services is trying to put that right.

Which is why it has been so disappointing that, since its launch in July, the public face of Future Services has been so very policy-wonkish. The initiative's most prominent event so far took place last month - a round-table discussion which was reported, almost verbatim, in the New Statesman.

The transcript of the event was accompanied by a picture of the round-table participants: 20 white men in suits sitting around a table. Okay, so there were three women. But it hardly conveyed a different kind of dialogue.

The transcript does reveal a thoughtful discussion, where the concept of choice in public services was dissected, re-branded, disowned and re-claimed. As a former think-tanker, and a self-confessed policy wonk, I found it a riveting read. But I was left wondering whether it was going to make any difference to the terms of the debate, whether the voice of those other than an elite group of citizens would really get to be heard.

The Future Services initiative promises more than this. Research will be conducted to explore the citizens' views, and there are plans to develop models of "customer relationship management" for public services (whatever that means).

Perhaps these activities will help to bring about a different approach.

After all, it would be such a missed opportunity if the very initiative that promises a different kind of dialogue simply carries on debating the issues in the same old way.

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