Two politics in public services

January 15, 2010 at 10:31 am 4 comments

by John Craig

Last week, Peter Mandelson argued that, in economics, Labour should focus less on the ‘politics of distribution’ and more on the ‘politics of production’.  In other words, if we put too much effort into working out how we cut the cake, we’ll end up baking fewer cakes, and everyone will suffer.  Actually, this isn’t as big a risk in relation to taxation as in public services. In recent years, Government has extended the language of inequality to areas like health and crime.  Reducing inequalities in experiences of crime and ill-health are now important Government objectives.  For me, this is where a focus on distribution is frustrating production.

Archon Fung shows how, in Chicago, much more policing that worked much more closely with the community benefited everyone, but benefited wealthier people most.  Equally, greater focus on citizens’ own responsibility for their health may most benefit those with the skills and resources to achieve this.  As a result, these approaches are too easily criticised as a charter for the middle-class and tend to fall foul of the ‘politics of distribution’.  However, these approaches do reduce crime and ill-health.

Crucially, goods like health and freedom from crime are less positional than income.  I would be happy to live in a world where there was less crime, even if crime in my neighbourhood fell by less than in others.  I would be happy to live in a healthier world, even if my health improved by less then others.  However, in a world where we have more money but I have less than other people, rises in the prices of assets like houses may actually reduce my quality of life.  (For more on this kind of thinking, see the work of Robert Frank).

The problem with the politics of distribution is not that they are being applied to the economic sphere – where the positional nature of some goods makes this unavoidable – but that they are being applied uncritically to public services.  As Robin Murray has said, ‘public services are a problem of creation not delivery’.  Sometimes, reducing health inequalities runs counter to improving health.

By John Craig


Entry filed under: Innovation Policy, Public Services. Tags: , , , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Valerie Hannon  |  January 15, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    I thibk there are two issues with this argument.
    The first is, that although health, freedom from crime, – and education – are less positional than income, distribution of resource is still an important factor. So if the total quantum of improved education (judged, say, by the proportion obtaining 5GCSEs A*-C) improved in inner city areas because the resource base had been tripled to achieve it; and this had been managed through a formula dimiinishing the resources in middle class schools – where results fell, – what then?
    Second, the point about ‘uncritical’ application of the politics of distribution really hits at the heart of the issue. Simply maintaining conventional models of service delivery, with existing unit costs, and focusing on their distribution is surely a barrier to the more radical endeavour which ask fundamental questions about the model in th first place: Robin Murray’s ‘problem of creation’. In education these would include: what is the real aim of this service in the 21stC? who might be involved in its (co-) production? What are the contemporary tools we have avaialble to achieve valued outcomes?

  • 2. John Craig  |  January 15, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Thanks, valerie. You’re right, I think, and it’s far from as simple as the format of a blog pushes one to pretend. Better perhaps to say as you do that uncritical application of politics of distribution is holding services back.

  • 3. james  |  January 15, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    What’s harming public services is privatisation – the shift to public authorities as commissioners of services rather than providers. This removes democratic oversight and results in public spending subsidising corporate profits.

    Mandelson’s politics of production should be matched with the politics of distribution – in other words, what is needed to share the proceeds of growth is shared ownership. Cooperative and mutual enterprise should be strongly supported by the government. Arguably, redistribution through taxation has resulted in governments relying on tax revenues from investor-owned financial services. and ignoring the costs to society as a result. Note that it was not building societies that required recapitalisation.

  • 4. Swear boxes and abstinence rings « Disciplined Innovation  |  January 27, 2010 at 11:53 am

    […] to provide for their children, far beyond the point of diminishing returns.  The other day, I blogged about Peter Mandelson’s comment that the Labour Party should focus a little less on the […]


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