United for Change Twitter debate ‘think-piece’: public or private? citizen or consumer?

Monday 31st October 2011

Tony Breslin Speaking

A few weeks ago I was invited to submit a think-piece for United for Change’s first Twitter debate. It was also the first such debate that I had taken part in. I’m not convinced by Twitter as a debating platform – you can shout out in 140 characters and you can even listen in the format but whether you can discuss through such a template remains, for me, an unanswered question, and certainly not one I can draw conclusions about after one try, executed from a fast train complete with a faltering signal and a dithering dongle. I sense blogging is a better outlet, though, and figured that, from the stability of my home desktop, I might use the piece to kick off the Breslin Public Policy blog.

Incidentally, United for Change is the network established by Claudia Megele and certainly a group worth watching. The debate focused on the relative balance between the public and private spheres in our society and I reproduce my own take on these matters below. I may subsequently publish the piece or some version of it for the new forum that I and a group of colleagues and friends will be launching shortly, Creative Forum, but more about that on this blog sometime soon. In the meantime, feedback and comment would be greatly appreciated.

Much of the debate around public and private seems to me to involve a simple dichotomy. For some, generally on the left, any ‘privatization’ is to be viewed with suspicion and if this exercise leads to others “profiting from the public purse”, it is to be resisted. In short, public sector values of altruism and commitment are replaced by private sector values of profit and self-interest. Flip the coin and those on the right contend that those in the public sphere, operating without either the possibility of profit or the fear of failure, are characterized by their slowness of response, their inability to innovate and their enslavement to the dead hand of pointless bureaucratic ritual. A quick shot of competition and the injection of the profit motive and all will be fine.

In truth, these representations are caricatures: most public services serve markets in some form (and always have) and most have, to some degree, always operated in (sometimes uneasy) partnership with the private sector. Moreover, the assumption that public ownership produces public control is more often than not flawed; as my father, a committed and lifelong trade unionist, would often remark, “you can nationalize a business but you don’t necessarily socialize it!” However, when the delivery (or the support system behind the delivery) of public service is formally privatized, the risk of an absence of public control, of public voice, is greater. As the banking crisis demonstrates, it is the absence of governance, of public accountability that is the real danger, especially when the delivery mechanisms are not just privately owned but globally cast and inhuman in scale, dwarfing the often formally ‘democratic’ nation states in which, and with which, they do business.

But at the core of this pubic/private debate is something far more profound. It seems to me to be not simply a question of ‘public’ and ‘private’ but of ‘citizen’ and ‘consumer’. Across the western world, we seem fixated on producing societies composed of perennially dissatisfied consumers rather than energetic, empowered citizens. Citizens work together to achieve their objectives (“in the public good”); in the horrible language of the management consultant and think tank, they ‘co-produce’ such that relationships are cooperative and underpinned with at least an element of altruism. In contrast, consumers are individualistic and materialistic and the relationships they enter are transactional and often negatively and wastefully competitive. Thus, the active, engaged parent – the parent as citizen – works with their child’s teachers to support the child’s progress: they help with homework, they impart important information about the child to the teacher that the teacher might otherwise take time – time that would otherwise be lost to learning – to find out, they support school events, join the parent teacher association and so on. The parent as consumer bemoans the school’s failure to meet their child’s needs, seeks a transfer to the school down the road and is willing to shoulder-barge their way through any queues they might encounter there.

Yes, the distinction is overdone. The identities of consumer and citizen are nuanced and overlapping but have we not got the balance wrong? If this summer’s disturbances, the banking crisis and the politicians’ expenses scandal tell us anything, they tell us that ‘I’ (the consumer) is triumphing over ‘we’ (the citizenry) and that even those without the currency of a bank bonus in their back pocket will go to desperate ends to secure the materialistic status symbols of our flat screen, ‘because I’m worth it’ world. That iconic footage of the undamaged bookstore in an otherwise trashed South London high street didn’t just represent the triumph of Samsung over Shakespeare; it confirmed the sterile emptiness of a place where the ‘self’ is everything and where self worth is defined by what you earn or appear to own; it provided a glimpse into a world where citizenship and our responsibility to each other is cast aside. On left and right, we need to move on from ‘public’ good / ‘private’ bad or vice-versa to a real debate about where the balance between our dual identities of citizen and consumer should lie and about the type of governance and public engagement mechanisms and capabilities that we need to articulate this from page, or web, to reality.

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