The Demise of Public Services as an Election Issue in Western Democracies

Almost everyone in Western democracies uses public services to some extent - even the super-rich cannot go private all of the time. The centrality of public services in most citizens’ everyday lives cannot be underestimated: a parent can wake up to put the bins out for collection in the morning, hop on a bus to take their child to school, then nip to the library to take out a book for their mother who’s in hospital, after which they return home using the metro. In the course of the day, our imaginary parent has seamlessly engaged with no fewer than five public services going about their daily business.

Although the centrality of public services in people’s everyday lives continues unabated, public service reform as a crunch issue in national elections has been in decline since Barack Obama placed healthcare at the centre of his campaign for the US presidency in 2008. In Foreign Policy, the internationally renowned global affairs journal, none of the “Elections to Watch in 2022” are expected to have public service reform at the centre of election campaigns[1].

Why is this?

1. Public Services are Complicated

Whilst public service reform is rarely at the centre of general election campaigns, the issue of public services often features as a by-product of another issue. In the UK general elections of 2010 and 2015, for example, the issue of economic competence/austerity, naturally led to debates about cuts in public services. However, the debate rarely evolved into mainstream discussions about public service reform. Instead, there is a crude focus on headline numbers signifying investment or cuts. Perhaps this is unsurprising. In the cut and thrust of national elections, big numbers are a surer way of transmitting a core message than getting into the technical and theoretical weeds of public service reform. Why? Because the complexity is difficult to communicate.

2. Voter Apathy

Although voters care deeply about the quality of public services, they tend not to care about the policy, ideological, and organisational theories and changes that underpin policy reform. Your average voter takes a limited interest in politics on a daily basis and, therefore, is unlikely to be engaged by national election campaigns which prioritise public service reform. In short, voters just want good public services, rather than abstract or technical debates about what might – or might not – make those public services ‘good’, hence why the issue is often eschewed in national campaigns.

3. Maybe People Are Happy with Public Services?

Generally, Western democracies have spent decades improving and innovating public services for the benefit of citizens. That is not to say all public services in all Western democracies are perfect – far from it. However, could it be that, in the main, citizens are sufficiently content with public services in Western democracies, so much so that reform does not elicit the requisite fervour to be a headline national election issue?

4. The Culture Wars

Elections in Western democracies are increasingly sullied with wedge issues aligned with the Culture Wars and, more specifically, those which define an individual’s identity. Whilst such issues are far from new, they are now deployed by political parties as a way of entrenching their supposed voting coalitions; notable examples being immigration and climate change policies in the French Presidential Election. Public service reform, though often the subject of fierce ideological debates, is not a signifier of one’s identity or position in the culture wars and, therefore, of limited interest to politicians and their campaign teams.

These factors have already pushed public service reform to the periphery of national election campaigns. Policy wonks should temper any expectations that this trend may reverse, especially as the big cheese of national election campaigns returns to the fray: the economy.

But that does not diminish its importance – or for that matter how central it is to the operation of good government. After all, as the axiom goes, the first job of government is to protect its citizens – a public service in itself. The second, third and fourth jobs are surely the delivery of other vital public services too.

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