Headlines: October 22nd, 2004

The National Consumer Council has set up a Public Services Users Forum in what it is calling “the start of a new phase in the quest to re-shape our public services to better meet the needs of users”. The move, which is being made in collaboration with a wide range of user-interest groups, follows research that shows more than three million people are already involved in shaping their local communities and public services. The NCC says its initiative aims to build on this for the benefit of all public service users.The report, “User Power”, by Stirling University academics Johnston Birchall and Richard Simmons, is based on research among 500 users of social housing and community care services in England and Scotland. It shows that people become more altruistic and community-spirited the longer they are involved with services. The findings also show that participation is not limited to the better educated and better off. It says treating users as partners in the design and delivery of services, rather than seeing them as being on the receiving end of a contract, is a key to successful participation and better services.

NCC is using the report as the starting point for a new forum that will look at what works on the ground and develop new ideas for effective participation. The idea is being supported by the Prime Minister and member organisations range from Age Concern, the RNID and Shelter, to the Alzheimer’s Society, the Prison Reform Trust and the Voice of the Child in Care.

The new forum is being chaired by Ed Mayo, the NCC chief executive, who believes harnessing the voice of users, from tenants to parents and prisoners to patients, in shaping public services is being increasingly recognised as a force for better services. But, he said, too many people felt divorced from the process. Eight out of ten people did not feel part of the current debate on the future of public services and almost as many believed politicians did not understand what people wanted.

NCC said the forum would try to bridge the chasm between the good intention of the words on public participation and the practical reality of action on the ground, by bringing together representatives from key organisations with links to real people and local communities to find innovative ways of making public participation work. It will also act as a sounding board for good practice and for promoting greater understanding of user involvement and empowerment.