The Citizen's Charter, an initiative of the Major government in 1991, forms a significant but unacknowledged landmark in the history of public sector accountability.
The ostensible aim of the Charter was to improve the quality of public services and also encourage value for money for taxpayers, by giving these ‘customers’ a toolkit to control efficiency and effectiveness of delivery of public services.
The animating ideal was to empower citizens as individual consumers, not as politicized members of a “participatory democracy”.
In the period between 1991 and 1997, more than thirty Next Steps Agencies published Charter Service Statements flanked by complementary policies such as Charter Marks and the Citizen’s Charter Complaints Task Force.
These charters were not legal entitlements for citizens, but they provided principles for the civil service and other administrative bodies to encourage better delivery.
The initiative was part of a wider process, begun at the end of the 1970s, to import the managerial practices of the private sector into public services.
The longer-term consequences have included the undermining of principles of collective provision, universal services and public accountability through the creation of a new consensus and practice around the value of choice and individual freedom.
The Citizen’s Charter came about as a personal initiative by the Prime Minister, John Major, after he was elected to the party leadership in 1990, and was announced to the public in 1991. The aim of the charter was to provide a “revolution in public service” which would, to use a catchphrase of that period, “empower the people”, who were to be regarded as customers by civil servants. The mission of the Charter was to make clear to the public how civil servants and other organizations were performing in the delivery of public services, and to make civil servants and public service providers answerable for the standards they were delivering.
Although the Citizen’s Charter is seen as having raised public service standards to ‘the status of a central theme of the 1990s’ it is important to realize that it also introduced certain other features into British public administration for the first time. We can distinguish four main policy agendas associated with the Charter:
These aims have since been continued and extended through a sequence of more recent policy initiatives, such as the Public Service Agreement of 1998 developed by Blair’s Cabinet, which aimed to improve performance and cost control in central government, the Business Plan introduced by the Coalition Government in 2010, which planned targets and better use of resources in Whitehall, and Single Department Plans established by the Conservative government in 2015, which aimed to coordinate departments’ activities, link them with the government’s overall spending review and improve oversight of spending and output.
In his autobiography John Major gives his account of the birth of the charter:
‘We had to end the excessive focus on financial inputs rather than service output. I knew that if I could achieve this it would be a huge gain – for taxpayers and service users alike. (…) I intended also to provide incentives for good performance, through more performance-related pay. Relative weakness would be a point of pressure on failing management to upgrade standards. Ideally, there should be financial sanctions for service failure. What is more, I wanted improved complaints procedures and to ensure that members of the public got redress, and explanation, an apology or even compensation when things went wrong. I set out these ideas in some detail in a speech to the Conservative Central Council on 23 March 1991. It was there I used for the first time the phrase “Citizen’s Charter” and undertook that with it we should look systematically at every part of public service to see how higher standards could be achieved.’
The White Paper that introduced the Citizen’s Charter opened with this statement: ‘All public services are paid for by individual citizens, either directly or through their taxes. They are entitled to expect high-quality services, responsive to their needs, provided efficiently at a reasonable cost. Where the state is engaged in regulating, taxing or administering justice, these functions too must be carried out fairly, effectively and courteously’.
Accompanying the initiative there was also the design for a different concept of public sector organisation: ‘Choice can also be extended within the public sector. When the public sector remains responsible for a function, it can introduce competition and pressure for efficiency by contracting with the private sector for its provision.’
The 1991 White Paper was a wide-ranging document, discussing, among other things, existing practices in the public sector, the powers of regulators over the privatised utilities, the use of market testing and contracting out to improve the quality of public services, and future legislation to privatise some parts of the public sector. Arguably the most distinctive aspect of these proposals concerned the creation of charters. Each public service would be required to issue a charter, with two linked aims: first, to enable consumers to determine what were acceptable standards of service for that particular institution; and, second, to tell them how to go about complaining, and obtaining redress, if the service they were given fell below this benchmark. In short, charters would empower those who relied on public services to ensure they obtained the standard of service they were entitled to receive.
A few observations can be made on the name of the initiative. The word “citizen” was not an easy one for a Conservative Government to use, and it is not a word which has the same everyday normality as “citoyen” in France or “cittadino” in Italy. As for the word “charter”, its most immediate echoes for the British are of the UN Charter, of the Magna Carta, of Charter 88, all initiatives claimed as guarantees against war and tyranny and related to rule of law and individual freedom. The position of the apostrophe (Citizen’s Charter, not Citizens’ Charter) is of no small importance.The Charter is intended to guarantee individual redress and quality of service, not the involvement of organized civil society in the conception and management of public services. The ideal is consumerism, not “participatory democracy”, the citizen as individual consumer, not a politicized and mobilized member of society.
The Adam Smith Institute, a neo-liberal institution, published a long study “Blueprint for a revolution” on the charter in 1992 stating that: ‘The Charter revolutionizes the relationship between the citizen and the state by turning it into one of explicit and enforceable contract’.
It expressed the hope that the charter would be a beacon for the world: ‘a Citizen’s Charter for public services could well become the normal means by which most countries seek to control an overgrown and unresponsive public sector’, adding “overgrown” to the “unresponsive” implicit in the Charter approach.
A number of different initiatives had in fact preceded the Citizen’s Charter. The concern with users of public services and the quality of services was not an innovation of the Major government. An occasional paper, for example, was published in 1988 by the Cabinet Office which identified the principles of offering a ‘service to the public’ as underlying the importance of providing ‘quick, efficient and courteous service’. Another example was a paper issued in spring 1991 by the Local Government Information Unit, Going for Quality. This discussed the use of service contracts, compensation schemes, complaints procedures and consumer surveys by a number of local authorities to improve the standard of their public services.
However, the Citizen’s Charter differed in one crucial aspect from these initiatives – its sheer scope. ‘The approach varies from service to service in different parts of the United Kingdom. The Charter is not a blueprint which imposes a uniform pattern on every service. It is a toolkit of initiatives and ideas to raise standards in the way most appropriate to each service’ as a government paper of 1992 put it.
The idea of the Charter as a ‘toolkit’ had to be emphasised, for although a number of legislative changes have been made under the aegis of the Charter, it was not a legal entity as such. There were no legal requirements as regards the structure of any charter, or the mechanisms it sponsored for consumer redress. This was made clear in a written answer of 1994. The Prime Minister stated that: ‘Under the Citizen’s Charter, each public service organisation is responsible for setting its own charter standards and ensuring they are monitored’. Indeed, the character of the Charter appeared to have undergone a shift: from requiring individual public services to carry out certain actions, such as draw up a charter, publish targets for performance, issue statistics on the achievement of those targets, etc., to encouraging and promoting best practices across public services.
The Charter was less centralised and more diffuse in its operation, and it received much less attention in the national press as a result. The work of the Citizen’s Charter Complaints Task Force, and the annual Charter Mark awards, were both a demonstration of this change in emphasis. With the focus on raising standards in the public sector, it established a clear political commitment to customer orientation in the civil service. In the words of the Cabinet minister responsible for its early implementation, the Citizen’s Charter was a policy of relationships with ‘customers’.
The Citizen’s Charter programme spelled out six key ‘principles of public services’ which every citizen was entitled to expect. They were:
a) Standards – the setting and publication of explicit standards for services and the publication of actual performance against these standards;
b) Information and openness – in the provision of services;
c) Choice and consultation – the provision of choice wherever practicable, together with regular and systematic consultation with the users of services;
d) Courtesy and helpfulness – from public servants;
e) Putting things right – redress and well-publicised and easy-to-use complaints procedures;
f) Value for money – the efficient and economical delivery of services within the resources the nation can afford.
As several commentators of the period pointed out, the Citizen’s Charter was, despite the title, substantially about promoting efficiency and quality of public service and their responsiveness to their customers and not about enhancing the rights of citizenship. In the words of one observer, the Charter was about ‘citizens as consumers by means of rights to receive information on services and performance, to assert choices and preferences, to complain and to receive redress’.
Hence, the Charter’s emphasis on consumerism was a clear recognition of the importance of the customer in the delivery of public services. This was an approach focused on making ‘things better for the consumer’ by taking the point of view of consumers and attempting to improve services in the light of those views. One of the pillars of the Charter’s consumer orientation was its concern with the availability of more information through the publication of service standards and performances. The provision of such information was an important manifestation of the Major government’s broader attempts to innovate against traditional methods of political accountability, thereby increasing the influence of consumers over the quality of public services.
The implementation of the Citizen’s Charter proposed by the White Paper provided for the creation of many charters, one for every issue considered by the government. The Paper argued: ‘Services work best where those responsible for providing them can respond directly to the needs of their client. ,,,patients, parents, passengers, taxpayers and other groups’.
By 1993 there were over thirty charters in the different branches of the public sector. The new approach implied an erosion of the principle of ‘faceless bureaucrats’, because the Charters prescribed wearing name badges. The Taxpayer Charter established what taxpayers could expect of the services provided by the Inland Revenue and by Customs and Excise, and targets were set for the time taken to reply to a customer’s letter. The Benefits Agency and the Employment Service also produced charters. These charters gave an interesting framework for the Citizen’s Charter’s ‘big ideas’. Here are some examples from the health care and transport sectors: ‘If you need to call an emergency ambulance, it should arrive within 14 minutes if you live in an urban area, or 18 minutes if you live in a rural area, or 21 minutes if you live in a sparsely populated area’ and ‘On the London Underground, if you wait more than 20 minutes for a train, you should receive a refund voucher.’
These charters were not legal entitlements for the citizens, but they provided principles for the civil service and other administrative bodies to deliver better services. All these Charters were coordinated by the Prime Minister’s Office as outlined by the 1991 White Paper and a Unit was set up in the Cabinet Office with the mission to formulate standards for the charters and to assign a Charter Mark as an award of good results and performances to the best providers.
Formally there was no legal effectiveness. Charters bet on more of a ‘nudge effect’ on central, local institutions and private providers, but these documents could be characterised as customer service contracts or customer guarantees and, as such, they clarified the standard of service which the customer was entitled, in principle, to receive.
The Citizen’s Charter Unit in the Cabinet Office worked in parallel with an advisory panel, chaired by the chief executive of Boots plc, and reported to the Prime Minister. The panel advocated for the development of managerial practices in public services as already seen in the private sector. Indeed, the increasing trend in the entire economy towards supply chain groups, franchises, and other more complex forms of economic relationships, where direct managerial control was often replaced by carefully drawn up contractual duties, bonuses and sanctions, was a move in the same direction as the Charter. For this reason, the Charter created new requirements on employees, who were in direct contact with the public. More formal dress (suits and ties for men), name badges, and uniforms were all on the rise in the public sector in that period, and each would have been included in the various sectorial Citizen’s Charters.
The Next Steps executive agencies, already set up by the Thatcher government in 1988 to reorganise the civil service in a more efficient and modern structure, were identified as the main vehicles for carrying forward the Citizen’s Charter’s principle in central government. By late 1995, many executive agencies had published their own charters or similar documents. In the period between 1991 and 1997, more than thirty Next Steps agencies published Charter Service Statements.The concept of customer service was an important element in the launching of new Next Steps Agencies. Agencies which dealt directly with citizens were basically expected to write a Charter or a Charter Service Statement that outlined the services the people could expect, including arrangements for customer consultation and complaints procedures.
In 1992, the Prime Minister’s Office developed the Charter Marks award, described by the Citizen’s Charter Unit as ‘the Oscar for public services’. The winners of these annual awards, who met the goals established and reached high levels of customer satisfaction, were entitled to use the Charter Mark logo for three years. The Charter Unit also ran activities to exchange information and ideas across the public services, including charter quality networks and seminars. Another step towards implementation was in 1993 when the Citizen’s Charter Complaints Task Force was created under the leadership of Lady Wilcox. The Task Force included representatives from the public and private sectors, and they examined how complaints systems in the public services were working. The Task Force published its report in July 1995, and wrote a Good Practice Guide for use by public service staff.
The continuity, at policy level, between the creation and development of the Next Steps executive agencies and the Citizen’s Charter initiative is evident. The Next Steps Initiative (1988) resulted in substantial hiving off of government functions from the Whitehall departments to executive agencies. In the early nineties the civil service was “federalised" into these independent executive agencies with their own budget and functions in providing public services. This fragmentation of the civil service was the premise to develop further reforms such as privatizations, contracting-out, performance management and measurement. Indeed, within each executive agency these new policies were easier to promote and to manage compared to large departments. The key aspect of this innovation was the separation of policy-making from service provision, a principle embodied in reforms throughout the public sector. The main objective was to further devolve managerial freedom subject to strict financial constraints, thus creating a working environment for managers equivalent to that of a private sector business. All services to the new agencies were to be properly costed and financed, whether coming from within other government agencies or the private sector. Thus, the incentives towards meeting the requirements of economy, efficiency and effectiveness were similar to those in the private sector.
This new organizational framework was functional to progressively shift the focus of administrative reforms from departmental organization to public services delivery managed by smaller administrative units. This was even the case of the Citizen’s Charter initiative. For this reason each executive agency established its charter fixing the standards of the specific public service they provided. This process was named “charterism” to point out the flourishing of charters drafted by executive agencies and to enhance the new polycentric and pluralist organization of the public sector.
The Citizen's Charter was the first significant public sector programme undertaken by the Major government. Despite its apparent novelty, it was a sign of continuity with the Thatcher era. What is perhaps more surprising was that the language of markets and privatisation was one which Opposition parties seemed increasingly to endorse. All the main political parties in the mid-90s had developed policies on the public sector with a similar perspective: all had been concerned to introduce market rationality into public sector service provision, although the appropriate extent of marketisation, for example in health care and education, was contested by Labour. As far as reform of public sector service provision was concerned, then, there was a striking similarity between the main parties, which was reflected in a shared conception of the citizen as consumer. The resonance of this idea lay, on the one hand, in its universal appeal: it was a common identity which transcended the sectionalism of class and interest group politics. Indeed, New Labour reinvented the Citizen's Charter rebranding it as `Service First’ in 1999 and Blair’s government adopted the Charter’s principles to design the Public Service Agreements policy in 1998.. The project in its original form seems to have been largely forgotten in the United Kingdom, but certain elements of it, such as setting standards for public services and charter marks, have become long-term policies as illustrated above.
In conclusion some considerations can be made about further policy implications of the Citizen’s Charter inititative.
First, there is policy continuity which starts with the Citizen’s Charter (1991-1998) and it develops with the Public Services Agreement (PSA, 1998-2010), Departmental Business Plan (DBP, 2010-2015) and Single Department Plan (2015). The Citizen’s Charter had introduced the idea of quantifiable service standards for specific services so that citizens could know “what service they have a right to expect”. However, forms of evidence presented to the public were not integrated with other public reporting. There was no link to financial information and the charters were closely focused on service delivery performance of each department or agency. Furthermore, the Citizen’s Charter was a “centralised” policy that involved only departments and executive agencies, but not local government,where greater opacity on providers’ performance remained.
The Citizen’s Charter, with its close focus on public services delivery and performance management, can be considered a first step to introduce the idea of accountability for the quality of services; however, in the following policy initiatives on government performance management a progressively more comprehensive, cross-governmental and holistic approach was developed. The further programmes focused more on “outcomes” rather than only “performance” (PSA), enhancing “priorities” of government and looking for “financial and performance integration” (DBP) and aiming to develop, with the Single Department Plans introduced in the 2015 Spending Review, an “integrated business plan” that includes finance, planning and performance in policy-making process.
Second, the chief aim of the Citizen’s Charter has been to increase financial, as opposed to political, accountability. The relationship between state and citizen is implicitly conceptualised in the Citizen's Charter programme in terms of a contractual nexus; services are provided by the state as a quid pro quo for the taxes paid by the citizen; and this of course permits a further link to be forged between the tax yield and the level of provision. Indeed, the service contract individualises the right to be served, and to object when the standard of service is unsatisfactory: the collective protest is displaced by the individual complaint. On one level, this ignores the structural imbalance of power that may exist between provider and user, the effects of which can only effectively be dealt with, it would seem, through the intervention of regulatory authorities. But more fundamentally, its effect is to detach the ideal of citizenship from active participation by the citizen within the institutions of the State, as well as from membership of a political community, where the latter signifies a political entity unified by reference to a finite set of common purposes and shared needs.
The function of politics envisaged here is one which facilitates participation in this “private” realm, and in that way to make citizenship meaningful. The Citizen’s Charter reinterprets the identity of the citizen in terms of the capacity to own and exchange property, and it seems to reduce the rights of the citizen to one: the right to buy. This initiative was a demonstration that a too “minimalist” approach to policy-making undertaken by central government did not always ensure political accountability or social security.
This policy legacy originated by the Citizen’s Charter is, as illustrated above, partly still present today, particularly at local government level. There have been some events in more recent years that show the failure of this discrepancy between public and private spheres. For example, the Citizens Advice Bureaus and Legal Aid have each lost progressively the financial support of the local authorities, leaving thousands of people without financial and legal aid. Individual responsibility and consumerism cannot replace entirely the collective responsibility of democratic politics in providing public services.
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