If in doubt, the Old Left would nationalise or regulate. If in doubt the New Right would privatise or deregulate. And if in doubt, the soupy left-right blend that now unites us has its own default option: quantify and publish.
Today The Guardian reports that the government is preparing to publish the death rates of patients undergoing major surgery at NHS hospitals in England. Boris Johnson won the London mayoralty with a promise to publish New York-style ‘crime maps’, detailing the areas of London that suffer from the worst crime.
The practice of tabulating and comparing ‘outputs’ has been growing in policy for a number of years now. The production of rankings is always the highlight of the World Economic Forum’s World Competitiveness Report, in which nations around the world are placed on a chart from the most competitive to the least. And New Labour has been infamous for its league tables, especially in education. The hope in such cases has been to create incentives to alter managerial strategy or try harder. Revealing a country to be the 35th most competitive in the world is meant to be a wake-up call for them to do better (unless it’s France), as well as to give businesses an indication of where not to invest.
This policy trick is now being performed for the benefit of individual citizens, thanks to two developments.
First, there is the ‘choice agenda’, which takes the observation that consumer choice is what drives efficiency through markets, and applies it to public services. And second, there is the internet, which for the first time enables distribution of such information at virtually zero cost.
The ironic thing about these marketising strategies is that they aspire to something far more radical than anything present in actual markets. Markets have their third party adjudicators, such as Which? and independent regulators; but on the whole, people are perfectly content relying on brand loyalty, habit, taste and convenience to determine their choices, without needing tables to inform them which outlet is the best (or second or third best).
The notable difference is that there is qualitative differentiation in a proper market, which is generally lacking in the field of public services: we may not be able to place supermarkets in rank order, but we know vaguely what we think of each of them. The inability to produce this qualitative differentiation in public services…