26 March, 2007
More than 100 people took part in regional forums and sixty in the event at No 10 on Saturday 3rd March. They discussed and debated key issues around the future of public services as part of a ground-breaking deliberative research project.
The results of the research have already informed the publication of Building on Progress: Public Services the first report from the Government's policy review process, which was published on 20 March.
Cabinet Minister Hilary Armstrong, who attended the Citizen Summit, said:
"There are always cynics but our responsibility as a Government is actually to engage with and listen to citizens, and as we are developing public services and public service reform so the role of citizens becomes ever more important, whether we like it or not. Citizens are making their views known to each other – on the internet, to Government on the internet, to their friends on the internet. We as a Government have to work out how we best engage with citizens, how we fit in to that process so that when we're spending their money we spend it in the most effective way."
Among the key findings of the research was that more than 6 in 10 citizens said that they wanted to feel empowered to take part in local and national decision-making, but they need more information and more convenient opportunities to do so. Almost two thirds also agreed there should be more consultation with citizens between elections to explain the issues and choices the government has to make.
Government, they said, should set standards but the public should have more power to make decisions throughout the policy-making process on local public services. They held back however on individual budgets for certain things, citing fears of a postcode lottery. Those working in local services should be knowledgeable about the area they are serving, they said, including community police officers. GPs should take on board patient feedback on opening hours for example and local services need to show they have responded.
At first citizens were wary of the idea of data sharing of citizen records within and between public services. However after discussion they mostly agreed that this would be beneficial, as long as this meant a better and more efficient service and subject to strict controls over how that information is used.
A new relationship with Government, Enable – Encourage – Enforce
Participants in the Summit agreed that Government should provide 'safety nets' in some areas, such as health where certain services should be uniformally available. They recognised they, as citizens, don’t always know what is exactly needed, however they do expect to be treated as adults and given support and encouragement to make decisions.
Participants felt it was unfair to ask people to do things when they were not enabled. Government needs to find ways to ensure they can make an impact on their lives and their community. For example, providing recycling facilities, opportunities for citizens to meet other families and ways to take part in community activity. Government and councils should also lead by example and show they care about their areas too, by offering support to those trying to make a difference.
The citizens had a strong sense of rights and responsibilities in relation to their fellow citizens, and recognised the role of their behaviour in affecting outcomes in health, education and crime; missing GP appointments was one example cited where those at fault should only be offered a sit and wait option. But they are cautious about going too far in trying to turn these rights and responsibilities into simple rewards and sanctions.
Only when other steps have been exhausted should compulsion be required – however there was largely agreement that rewards were better than penalties for example for young people in education, good parenting and recycling. There was a sense of fairness from the citizens, that those less well-off would be more penalised by sanctions and that those with lower educational abilities may need more active support.
Compulsion may be required for the parents of at-risk children (those who regularly play truant or are persistent offenders), but this could take the form of parenting classes. Rewards for 'normal' expected behaviour for everyday activities were however not popular.
Citizen responses from the Downing Street summit:
Citizen: "I actually came here feeling like a statistic and I'm going away feeling like a citizen."
Citizen: "It's been sincerely great to meet Cabinet ministers and to meet peers and different types of people from all across the country (and) share opinions."
Citizen: "We had quite an in-depth conversation on all the subjects. There was a bit of disagreement but at the end of the day it was fantastic."
Citizen: "What's really struck me is what a difficult job the Government have truly got in terms of coming up with a blanket policy, it’s never really struck me until I’ve got in to the analysis today just how much thought has to go in to meet the requirements of everybody."
Citizen: "Let's hope they (Government) listen, we will see."