Perspectives

What citizens think about the public sector

The state of the state

Understanding citizen attitudes has always been important to government and the public sector. Political leaders strive to respond to the electorate’s priorities and public service managers want to deliver on citizen expectations. But a clear view on what matters to the public is more important than ever in an age of spending restraint – it allows the public sector to make informed choices about allocating resources and reforming services in ways that deliver the most citizen impact.

For this year’s State of the State report, Deloitte LLP and Reform commissioned Ipsos MORI to survey more than 1,000 members of the public on their attitudes and expectations of the public sector. The research offers seven headline findings:

  1. The NHS remains people’s top priority
    The NHS should stay at the top of the government’s priority list, according to our survey – in spite of Brexit. Although 33 per cent of respondents said that the government needs to prioritise leaving the EU, the NHS was well ahead with 57 per cent. And 30 per cent said that the government should focus on education. So while people recognise the importance of a successful Brexit, they want the government to keep improving public services and deliver ‘business as usual’.
  2. People fear a post-Brexit decline in services
    Many people remain wary about the impact of Brexit on public services. Just 28 per cent think the decision to leave the EU will improve services – compared to 41 per cent who fear it could have a negative effect. That said, the most pessimistic respondents came from groups more likely to have voted ‘remain’ in the referendum including Londoners and higher earners. In other words, the people who voted to stay in the EU are likely to still believe that leaving could have negative consequences.
  3. Citizens are broadly satisfied with public services
    Nationally, more people believe public services are getting worse than they did in the late 1990s – yet their personal experience is largely positive. Some 18 per cent told us that the public services exceed their expectations compared to just five per cent when Ipsos MORI ran the same survey question in 1998, and overall satisfaction levels are high. This suggests public awareness about austerity has created a sense of worsening services, or has reduced expectations – but actual user experience remains good.
  4. Austerity’s impact has risen in the past year
    The majority of respondents to our survey – some 72 per cent – did not feel they have been significantly impacted by spending cuts. But the proportion of those hit by austerity measures has increased since last year from 23 to 27 per cent. And we found parents, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and renters are generally more likely to feel affected.
  5. Support for tax rises has grown
    Our survey asked people what would most improve their services locally – and the top three answers were ‘better public transport’, ‘better healthcare’ and ‘more investment’. If the Chancellor is considering a shift to infrastructure and public investment in the Autumn Statement, as many believe, he might find that the move reflects public opinion.
    But if the public wants more money spent on services, the obvious question is whether they would be willing to pay for it – and our survey suggests that support for tax rises has indeed risen over the austerity years. Some 60 per cent told us they believe public services should be extended, even if that means higher taxes. That’s a marked increased from 46 per cent when Ipsos MORI last asked this question last in 2009. 
  6. People want a more responsive and personalised public sector
    Our survey asked people how their experience of public services compares to their experience of private sector services, like banks and shops. Overall, people see little difference – except in two regards: just 19 per cent said public bodies listen to their preferences, compared to the private sector score of 28 per cent. Similarly, 17 per cent said the public sector offers a personalised service compared to 27 per cent for the private sector. And the over 65s – the most frequent users of many public services – are the most likely to feel that public services are less likely to listen. These findings suggest that citizens want to feel that public bodies are responsive to their needs.
  7. The public sector needs to bridge a digital divide
    As public bodies ramp up their online engagement with the public, our survey finds a digital divide that needs to be recognised. When we asked people about their preferences for contacting the public services, we found that public demand for communicating online is split. There is a huge appetite for online engagement among affluent professionals and those under 45, but it trails off by age and occupation classification. For the public sector, that means online channels have a very strong future – but in the meantime, public bodies need to make sure that no user groups are excluded as online interaction is rolled out.

For more detail on our citizen survey, take a look at The State of the State 2016-17.

 

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