Thursday, 7 October 2010

Big Society implies taxpayers are consumers

The radicalism in Big Society is that it is calling for people to be empowered. This means not only taking responsibility but also being demanding. The logical development of the argument is a complete reconfiguring of the relationship between the tax payer and the state. If people respond to the Big Society clarion call they will no longer treat the state as a benevolent bestower of privilege, but a service that they can design or even deliver for themselves.

Concepts of value for money and social impact will become common place. I thought the announcement from NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) today was staggering. It has taken them 4 years to work out that spending £2.60 per day for Alzheimer’s medication to delay symptoms, is cheaper than letting suffers quickly degenerate into needing residential care. Really? You think?

I have had a bit of a moment with the system myself this morning. Like all parents of a 10 year old we are doing the rounds of schools to ensure our youngest has a shot at a decent secondary education. Our choices are not great and range between some of London’s poorest performing secondary schools and 2 of the best which use such highly selective methods that only 1 in 14 applicants succeed, it’s a depressing business. Added to that I have found the application process like entering a state of purgatory.

As someone who spends long hours at work, particularly office hours, I thought to make my online application at SEL. Silly, silly me. Be warned! I was unable to receive the required password despite several attempts and my first call to the education authority and then the email application on line service helpdesk they referred me to, confirmed that it was likely that my work server was filtering the system’s responses as spam, so I tried again at home. There the system would not let me log on as I had already begun the process elsewhere! A call to the now familiar helpdesk didn't, so my husband logged on at home and we completed it together. Having submitted our application we waited. Two weeks later, today in fact, I called the education authority who told me they had no record of our application. This is our daughter’s future at stake and despite confirming that they can see we have made three separate attempts to apply, 2 in my name one in my husband's, none were successful. There is no imperative apparently to notify unsuccessful applicants that they have failed.

How terrifying is that? If I had not called this morning, Katie would not have a school place despite the fact that the authority can clearly see that we have tried to submit an application. As I pointed out to the now familiar helpdesk, if I had been ordering my groceries and failed to submit my order I would have been contacted to try again. A system motivated by profit would have tried to help me ensure that my order for Edam cheese was completed but one that considers its intervention a privilege bestowed on only compliant, diligent members of the public confers all responsibility for ensuring their children’s education on the applicant.

In case you are wondering why I didn’t fill in a form, I couldn’t find one. When there was no form in the admissions pack sent home with Katie from her primary school I thought she had dropped it. We then went to look at a couple of schools and there were no paper application forms there either. I asked Richmond Education department (all very helpful and friendly I hasten to add) about that today, and was told, “Oh we encourage everyone to make an on line application”.

I was told this morning, by a rather irritated help desk person (to be fair I was being pretty stroppy) that people were successfully making applications every day and it was perfectly straightforward, with the obvious implications, I responded that it was straightforward until it didn’t work ,for whatever reason, and then what of folk who have low educational levels, or don’t speak English as a first language? State run on line systems are often all about the service provider and not the consumer. If you don’t, as the fabled Malcolm Tucker is fond of saying, “F#@k all the i’s and fist all the t’s” you're lost. It's my experience that the concept of consumer itself within the public sector is a fledgling one.

But come the Big Society, tax payers will no longer be content to drop out of the system’s fishnet stockings, despite diminished resources people we expect improved levels of service, and the public sector whether its through traditional provider arms, or indeed social enterprises, will have to deliver. My husband has just emailed me to say he has successfully completed the process, Yippeee! We will now cross everything to hope Katie gets in to a good school that we are on the very knife edge of the catchment area for.  If she doesn't we may need more than a helpdesk.

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