Public services are urged by the Social Exclusion Unit to do more for the 12.4m disadvantaged people in the UK who have significantly poorer life chances than the general population. The report from the Unit, ‘Improving Services, Improving Lives’ shows that public service reform is not doing much for those who need them most. The Unit looked at the way services respond to disabled people, people with long-term health conditions, ethnic minority groups who experience the most acute levels of socio-economic disadvantage including Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and people with low levels of literacy.The report highlights key areas for action including better information and communication, and giving disadvantaged people the “know how” they need to find and use public services effectively.
Understanding the information provided by public services can be a challenge in itself particularly for people that struggle with reading and writing. Some information, for example, requires a reading age of nearly 17 years – well above the skills of more than 50 per cent of the population. Improving information is a vital part of the reform programme and essential if people are to make choices.
Another area of difficulty is interaction with frontline staff. Both users and staff of public services expect to be treated with respect, but the reality is that disadvantaged people often report experiencing poor understanding and ‘attitude’ from frontline staff. The report recognises that staff face pressures and constraints and sometimes, unacceptable behaviour. It argues that the way forward is to give staff the right skills to cope with the challenges they meet daily.
The report highlights the role of the voluntary and community sector in providing advocacy, advice and information services in bridging the gap between the statutory sector and disadvantaged groups. They are able to give disadvantaged people the confidence and the ‘know how’ to navigate their way around public services and get the most out of them.