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Policies for Improving Public Service Performance

What do the Public Think?

Would you like more choice over where to send your children to school? Do you want hospitals to compete to provide your health care? Those who advocate market-oriented approaches intended to improve public services (as in England) assume that the public would say yes to such questions, while those who reject such reforms (as in much of the rest of the UK) assume that the answer would be no. But in spite of passionately advocated positions on both sides of the ‘choice’ debate, there is a remarkable lack of hard evidence about what the public actually know or think or believe across the various countries of the United Kingdom.

Accordingly, this project, the Public Services Programme’s biggest single investment, comprises a large-scale survey conducted (for the first time) across all four parts of the United Kingdom to discover what attitudes the public actually have towards the way that key public services should be provided, and how far those attitudes are reflected in current public management policies across the different parts of the UK. Questions to be asked include:

What the research means for policy-makers and the wider community

Research Methods

The survey material consists of a module of 60 questions designed to find out public attitudes towards the provision of education, healthcare and social care. These questions are to be included in the 2007 British and Scottish Social Attitudes surveys, the 2007 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey and in a specially commissioned survey in Wales. Altogether the project will involve over 5000 face-to-face interviews (together with a self-completion supplement) on attitudes to public services with a random probability sample of people aged eighteen and over. The questions are intended to be replicable in the future and have been carefully designed not to make reference to specific current policies so that the exercise can be repeated to test for attitude shifts in the future.

The survey focuses on three topics, the health service, schools and social care. Wherever possible the same or functionally equivalent questions are asked of all three, thereby making it possible to systematically compare attitudes across the three different kinds of service. It may, after all be the case, that the public think that different services should be delivered in different ways. Meanwhile, these three services all have the advantage that they are the responsibility outside England of the devolved administrations, and are thus delivered differently in each of the four parts of the UK.

Project Outputs and Other Related Webpages

Curtice, J (2010) ‘Policy divergence : recognising difference or generating resentment’ in Lodge, G. and Schmuecker, K. (2010) (eds), Devolution in practice 2010, London, Institute for Public Policy Research

Project Poster 2009

Curtice, J. and Heath, O. (2009) ‘Do people want choice and diversity of provision in public services?’ in Park, A.  et al (eds) (2009) British Social Attitudes: The 25th Report,  London: Sage

Curtice, J. (2009) ‘Is there an English backlash? Reactions to Devolution’ in Park, A.  et al. (eds) (2009),  British Social Attitudes: The 25th Report, London: Sage  Download the chapter now:

Appleby J. and Phillips, M (2009) ‘The NHS: satisfied now?’ in Park, A.  et al. (eds) (2009),  British Social Attitudes: The 25th Report, London: Sage

Ormston, R. & Curtice, J. (2007), Attitudes towards a ‘British’ institution: Comparing public views of the NHS in England and Scotland, Scottish Affairs, 61 (Autumn 2007), pp.50-73

Responses to the questions on public attitudes towards public services included in the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2007 are now available.

Research Team

John Curtice

John Curtice

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and a Research Consultant to the National/Scottish Centre for Social Research. He was a co-director of the British Election Study between 1983 and 1997, has been co-editor of the British Social Attitudes series since 1994, and is a co-director of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey. In these roles he has undertaken a wide range of research on trends in public attitudes across the United Kingdom.

Telephone: 07710 348 755

Miranda Phillips

Miranda Phillips

Miranda is a Research Director at the National Centre for Social Research. A co-director of NatCen’s flagship British Social Attitudes Survey, she has also worked on a number of other major surveys including a DWP survey on Attitudes to Pensions, the Youth Cohort Study, and the Families and Children Study

Telephone: 020 7549 9515