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The Value and Values of Quality Public Services

published 23 May 2013 updated 23 May 2013
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Years of demagogic attacks on public services in some countries, even if the services are efficient and of good quality, has created a barrier to understanding the value of quality public services (QPS) [1]. In this sense, the notion of QPS is an easier concept to explain if there is a common understanding that collective solutions to many of the challenges facing society will be fairer and more efficient, than if everybody fends for themselves individually in the market.

However, this consensus has become weaker in many countries. If one were to argue that the economy would function better if there were no enterprises employing workers, but there were only self-employed workers, everybody would consider the idea to be foolish. However, arguing for having the smallest government possible, with limited means due to low taxes, while based on the same lack of logic, would not necessarily elicit that same instinctive and wise reaction.

An effectively functioning government and good public services are important for all communities. Their absence, however, has a very unequal impact. If it is true that "the rich and the poor both have the same opportunity to sleep under a bridge at night", the same kind of “equality” of opportunity can hardly be found when it comes to getting a good education, having access to health care services, transport, security, and so on. If these services are not provided publicly and universally, in fact, only those with the financial means to pay for them will have the opportunity to enjoy them.

One of the earliest demands of the trade union movement, dating back to the 19th century in many countries, was free public education. This claim was not put forward to give teachers work, but, rather, as a way of providing opportunities for the children of workers. It was a demand for equality, and one that is not yet fulfilled. Similarly, in a fight that is far from over, providing equal education for girls and boys remains a central priority for equality, for public services, and for democracy.

Quality public services are not just about good, affordable services; they are the “delivery system” for democracy and the infrastructure for governance. What would it mean, for voters, to make choices if their decisions could not be implemented? This applies to laws as well, which, even if interpreted by an independent judiciary, mean little without enforcement.

Yet quality public services are related to more than democracy, governance, equality and fairness. They are also vital to the economy; an un-regulated economy, left to its own devices, is likely to collapse in time. For example, the financial and economic crisis, as dramatic as it has been and as entrenched as it has become, would have been even worse without the timely intervention of governments to save the financial system.

There are a wide range of other interventions in the economy to make it work or to try to ensure that economic activity does not contradict public policy. They include the protection of public and private workers, in areas such as trade union rights; an essential element of the bulwark of democracy. Added to these enabling rights are the protection of other fundamental workers’ rights, occupational health and safety, as well as wage and hour protection. Such rights and protections are not real without a combination of a proper normative framework, an independent judicial system that works fairly and in a timely manner, and honest and vigorous labour inspections. Moreover, there are a broad range of social protections and social security systems that help to make society more fair and equal, and support the economy by providing the means for people to live even in difficult times. The economic value of such systems is often under-estimated, but, in general, those countries that have weathered the crisis that began in 2008, are the ones that did not simply let the bottom fall out, but moderated the effects of the rapid fall of markets, particularly with respect to employment.

Quality public services are also highly relevant to the environment and for issues clearly related to communities' “quality of life”. It is a mistake to think that they are an unaffordable luxury for people from developing countries and only relevant to those who have already satisfied many of their material needs - for a worker who must spend three hours travelling to work in a stifling, over-crowded private bus with irregular service in heavy traffic, quality of life and the environment are not only relevant, but quite compelling issues.

Unfortunately, the assaults on public services in both developing and developed countries have obscured to some degree the necessary debate on “quality” in “quality public services”. Trade unions do not consider that they are defending the status quo in calling for quality public services. In fact, they are aspiring to something much better. However, they will not achieve their goals in an environment of confrontation – but rather one in which such an important, reasoned and inclusive debate can easily take place.

There is also a more philosophical, less concrete question of public service values. Does anybody, including the most privileged of citizens, really want be part of a society where the only thing that counts is money? It has often been said that “the market knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing”. A society which is less deferential to private gain and more solicitous of the public good would be a better one. Getting there requires quality public services.

[1] This blog is excerpted from “Global Corporate Taxation and Resources for Quality Public Services

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.