(12 March 2018) The quality of public services is a key factor in explaining differences across Europe regarding citizens’ trust in institutions. This strong correlation between the two is one of the findings from Eurofound’s Quality of Life Surveys, the most recent one of which was presented on 8 March in Brussels under the theme “Access to and quality of public services in the EU – A debate on improving quality of life” . Some 30,000 people responded to the latest survey, and although caution is necessary in drawing too much from the responses, a number of important points emerge from the survey that underline why EU and Member States should have a much more proactive and progressive approach to public services, and which can tally with other findings.
There is not yet enough research on how to measure / identify ‘quality public services’. There is a clear link with finance (especially when budgets are very low) but other factors play a role. For EPSU we insist that the principles that underpin the concept of public services (solidarity, equal access, equal treatment, affordability, sustainability, democratic control etc.) are central to any evaluation of quality, as is the quality of work for workers delivering the services. Furthermore, services need to be looked at from both a differentiated (e.g. public employment services, eldercare, prison services have different purposes) and joined-up way (childcare is part of childhood development that also needs to involve support for families, eldercare services need to complemented with leave arrangements, etc).
Public services for the poor become poor public services so mixity is important to maintain quality for all. Mixity is important for better off people, both in specific services (nobody wants unnecessary medical treatment, but in profit-orientated healthcare systems they receive it) as well as more generally in terms of social and economic cohesion. This is why they are so popular and why they make societies resilient in times of crisis.
EU instruments to support Member States develop and improve public services are sometimes seen to be lacking, but in discussion we recalled many tools that have been developed in recent years (e.g. the Voluntary Framework for Social Services of General Interest), but also other initiatives that have tried to shift Europe’s economic model away from short-term growth towards well-being and sustainable development (the ‘Beyond GDP policies). The European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) might provide new momentum to the EU and Member States to maintain and develop quality public services, e.g. through the Social Scoreboard and the economic Semester.
On the other hand we see continued pressures on public finances, especially at local level. Here the European Commission is promoting Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) and innovative funding mechanisms as ‘new’ sources of financing to get around the lack of public finance. However in reality these schemes syphon off public money rather than add to it. Furthermore, also key to the concept of ‘quality public services’ is their sustainability over the long term. We need to make more strongly the case that collective forms of funding are the necessary basis for public services (tax, social insurance, but also social economy organisations in the true meaning of this concept). EU should support Member States to do this; this would be a much more effective way to ensure ‘that every euro of EU taxpayers money is well spent.’ In any case, both the public and private sector benefit form quality public services.
EU and Member States should also be more ambitious in shaping public services of the future. There are new and growing needs, developments linked to technological developments, and greater expectations of citizens that need to be addressed. Policy makers should be more honest in saying that these issues can only be dealt with fairly in a framework that supports risk-sharing and solidarity between citizens in order to ensure quality public services for all and individual rights.
The debate about the future of public services was summed up well as being a glass half full or half empty. Certainly there are many reasons to be positive.