Creating Citizen-Consumers: Changing Publics & Changing Public Services


John Clarke, Janet Newman, Nick Smith, Elizabeth Vidler & Louise Westmarland

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    When we began the research project on which this book is based we had no idea how much political and public attention would focus on our subject matter – the introduction of a more consumerist, choice-oriented approach to the delivery of public services. The research project – Creating Citizen-Consumers: Changing Identifications and Relationships – was funded by the Cultures of Consumption research programme, a joint initiative of the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant no: RES-143-25-0008) and ran from April 2003 to May 2005. It was based in the Department of Social Policy at the Open University, and the research team comprised all five authors of this book.

    In the process of conducting this research and developing this book we have incurred numerous debts. Frank Trentmann, the Director of the Programme, has been a consistent source of support, encouragement and opportunities – particularly creating a variety of public events at which we have talked about the research and its implications. The programme itself has been an unusually engaging collaborative process, given the intellectual diversity of the projects it contained. We have learned much from our colleagues in the programme, both within the ‘public’ cluster and beyond it. The programme has also been a pleasure to be part of because of the way it has been administered by Stef Nixon.

    We could not have done any of this without the support and collaboration of people associated with the three services in the two urban settings where the research took place (Newtown and Oldtown). The generosity of spirit with which people opened their offices, places of work, homes and thoughts to us was remarkable – and confirmed for us the importance of public discussions of public services, their reform and the difficult and demanding relationships between changing publics and changing public services. As we hope the book makes clear, we have learnt a lot from the experience.

    Our colleagues at the Open University, within Social Policy and beyond, have provided diverse forms of intellectual and organisational support – from the transcription of audio tapes to listening to the first workings out of position papers. We can think of no audience with whom we would rather take such first tentative steps and we hope they can see the effects of their comments, suggestions and advice in what has now emerged. Particular people made us think about specific things: Eugene McLaughlin got us thinking about the police as part of this research in the first place; Clive Barnett engaged us in important reflections on both consuming and a dialogic public; and Margie Wetherell tried to help us think about discourse. During the project we had enormous support from our advisory group: Nick Ellison, Sharon Gewirtz, Caroline Glendinning, Mary Macleod and Sandra Walklate. Our limitations are our own responsibility.

    We have benefited enormously from the academic networks that have allowed us to present some of our work in a variety of conferences, seminars and workshops. It is always rewarding to find people taking our local obsessions seriously – and we have been generously supported and stretched by such conversations over the last three years. The people involved are too numerous to name, but we are pretty sure that we could not have got to where we have without the following: Dottie Holland, Fabian Kassl, Wendy Larner, Greg Marston, Catherine Needham, Catherine Neveu, Tine Rostgaard, Holger Ziegler.

    And last, but not least … thanks to the Labour governments of 1997–2006 (the date of writing) for the policy developments that ensured that our work was always guaranteed a high level of interest from, and engagement by, public, professional and academic audiences.

  • Appendix: The Project

    Creating Citizen-Consumers: Changing Relationships and Identifications was funded by the ESRC/AHRB Cultures of Consumption programme and ran from April 2003-May 2005 (grant number: RES-143–25–0008). The project team was John Clarke, Janet Newman, Nick Smith, Elizabeth Vidler and Louise Westmarland, all based in the Faculty of Social Sciences at The Open University, UK.

    We studied three public services: health, policing and social care. These were selected to exemplify different forms of relationship with publics and a variety of institutions reform trajectories. We examined all government policy and guidance texts, together with as many official speeches and political documents as we could access, to trace the trajectory of consumerist discourse in general and in the specific services selected.

    The service-centred elements of the study were carried out in two places (Newtown and Oldtown). Both of these were urban settings in England and were chosen to explore whether different urban social formations and political cultures had implications for the installation and appeal of consumerist orientation in services and their users. Newtown, as it name suggests, is a relatively recent planned development in the South East which has a short history of service provision in terms of local authority social care and the organisation of health care through the local Primary Care Trust (PCT). Policing of the area is part of a larger Force. Oldtown, by contrast, is an old industrialised urban area, part of a larger conurbation in the North West. It has a long history of service provision, though both social services and the PCT were conscious of trying to break institutional legacies of the past. Again, policing was organised as part of a larger Force.

    We distributed 600 questionnaires to users and front-line staff: 50 to users and 50 to staff in each service in each location (a sample questionnaire can be found below). 106 questionnaires were returned from users and 168 from staff (a 46 per cent return rate). These questionnaires tested orientations to the four aspects of consumerism discussed in the book: Challenge, Choice, Inequality and Responsibility. Results from the questionnaires were mapped on positive and negative axes to produce the weighted figures in Chapter 4. The questionnaire also included a multiple choice question of identifications, accompanied by a space for open comments on the identifications and their significance.

    We conducted 24 interviews with managers; 23 with staff; 10 with users and held 6 user focus groups. Interviews with managers took place in their offices at the services and explored their perceptions of the conditions and impacts of consumerism on the service. Managers were selected for interview following first contacts with the most senior person responsible for the service in the area, and further interviewees were identified during the course of interviews.

    Staff and user contacts were the result of responses to the questionnaires which included a reply form expressing willingness to be interviewed. Interviews with staff and users were held in a variety of settings after negotiation with the interviewee. As with managers, interviews were semi-structured, exploring issues from the questionnaire and further questions about identifications and relationships with public services. Focus groups with people who used services were held for all three services in both settings. They used a set of ‘scenarios’ as starting points for discussion and also explored identifications and relationships. All interviews and focus groups were tape recorded and transcribed for analysis (and were coded for processing through Atlas software).

    Sample Questionnaire
    Creating Citizen-Consumers Questionnaire: Social Care (Users)
    • I feel confident expressing what I want from Social Services.

    • In general I trust social workers to know what is the best care package for me.

    • I am quite happy to challenge the decisions of social workers.

    • Social workers do their best and we should give them the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong.

    • I think it is everyone's responsibility to stay fit and active.

    • The government should do more to look after people.

    • It is up to me to make sure I get the support I need.

    • I do not think you can trust ordinary people to know how to stay fit and healthy.

    • At the moment, users do not get enough choices about the care they receive.

    • People do not want to make choices about the care they receive.

    • Giving users a say will make social care more responsive to their needs.

    • More choices will make social care more complicated and difficult to use.

    • Giving users a greater say will improve social care for all those who receive it.

    • Giving users a say with regard to the care they receive means those with the skills to work the system will benefit the most.

    • It is about time social care was organised around the needs of users, and not those who provide it.

    • Listening to users means concentrating resources on those who shout the loudest.

    • Which of these words best describes your relationship to Social Care (please tick TWO at most)

    If you would be willing to take part in a short interview on this subject please fill in your contact details on the attached form and return with your completed questionnaire in the envelope provided. Thank you very much for your help.


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