My name is Oli, I am currently studying for a BSc Social Policy (2nd year). I am passionate about issues surrounding inclusion and access in higher education, as well as contemporary challenges facing the welfare state.
I was delighted and surprised to receive the award for the ‘Best Undergraduate Public Policy student essay’. It has given me real confidence in my written voice and ability to comment on policy debates.
In brief, my essay reflects on the relative merits of choice and voice as mechanisms for improving policy outcomes and public service quality. My reading led me to be fairly critical of both mechanisms. Instead, I argue that more privileged social groups are better placed to exercise choice and to make their voice heard. Overall, I advocate voice mechanisms, drawing on the potential of participatory innovations to improve policy outcomes for the greatest number of people.
Central to my argument is Hirschman’s (1970) Exit, Voice and Loyalty. He explains that choice and voice represent a ‘fundamental schism’ between economics and politics, respectively. This distinction helped me to frame choice and voice in the broader context of economic and political discourses. I borrow from Le Grand (2007) to understand exactly what an improved policy outcome or public service might look like. He lists five attributes which constitute a ‘good’ public service, namely: quality, efficiency, responsiveness, accountability and equity.
I begin with a discussion about choice, which it is argued will make services more efficient and equitable – a perspective described by Garland (2016). Drawing on examples of parental choice in education, I argue that this is not necessarily the case. The upper- and middle-classes tend to be the ‘biggest gainers’ from the introduction of choice into education – and public services more broadly – as they are better able to ‘manipulate the system’ and ‘understand the information about which schools are best’ (Greener, 2007). One example of this is the relative ease with which wealthier families can move within the catchment areas of desirable schools – a recent DfE report found that house prices near the most desirable schools are higher than in the surrounding areas.
Underlying choice are certain assumptions about the characteristics of the chooser (i.e. those choosing will be ‘rational decision-makers’). Drawing from Gabriel and Lang’s (2015) typologies of consumer, I problematise this notion, arguing that individuals may choose for a variety of reasons. For example, the ‘activist’ who consumes to make an ethical stance, or the ‘identity-seeker’ who consumes to increase group affiliation. I contend that this has wide-ranging implications for choice theory.
I then move on to discuss voice, which can refer to a range of different mechanisms – from voting to e-democracy. I start by exploring some of the most significant critiques of voice. Firstly, Lijphart (1997) notes that the greatest challenge facing voice is unequal participation. I draw on evidence to suggest that participation is strongly linked to income, wealth and education – see Pattie et al. (2004). The result is that policy outcomes and service improvements tend to reflect the wishes of certain groups over others. Secondly, while democratic theory advocates the benefits of citizen participation, resulting improvements to public services would arguably depend on the capacity of citizens to make considered judgements – see Arendt (1982) for a discussion on decision-making. Moreover, Offe and Preuss (1991) quip that ‘[it] appears to be a largely novel task’ to make decisions based on reflective principles as opposed to ‘fixed preferences’.
I conclude by arguing for the potential of innovative voice mechanisms to improve services and policy outcomes – see Smith (2009). I draw on well documented examples of participatory deliberation – watch this video for an account of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and a discussion of some issues which were encountered when attempting to ‘scale up’ the innovation. I argue that e-petitions offer a useful rebuttal to some of the criticisms of voice, as they have been shown to make public services more efficient, responsive and accountable – see Bochel and Bochel (2017) for an account of the successful implementation of e-petitions in the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.
Please feel free to comment or e-mail if you have any thoughts or questions about my blog post.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:
When the people speak – and decide: deliberation and direct democracy in the citizen assembly of Glarus, Switzerland
Beyond radicalism and resignation: the competing logics for public participation in policy decisions