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project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

Cultures of Consumption and Consumer Involvement in Public Services

Processes of involvement and representation are particularly important in public services if consumer interests are adequately to be taken into account. Yet there are several different, sometimes competing ways of representing consumers’ views and their interaction is not well understood.

This research explored these issues with service users and provider representatives in three public services–housing, social care and leisure services–during 2004 and 2005. It found that greater recognition of users’ mix of individual and collective identifications, more viable opportunities for users to express their views, and a better balance between leadership and listening in public service organisations are all important if enhanced processes of involvement are to be achieved.

This project ran from July 2003 to December 2003

image illustrating findings

click to view this project's findings summary [pdf]

Project team
Johnston Birchall award holder
Richard Simmons
Alan Prout

Dr. Johnston Birchall
Department of Applied Social Science
Stirling University
Stirling FK9 4LA

+44 (0)1786 467 981

Publications include

Birchall J. and Simmons R. User Power: the participation of users in public services, (London: National Consumer Council, 2004).

Simmons R., Birchall J. and Prout A. Open Channels: hearing the public in public services(London: National Consumer Council, 2006).

Simmons R., Birchall J. and Prout A. Cultural Tensions in Public Service Delivery: implications for producerconsumer relationships (Working paper 026, ESRC/AHRC Cultures of Consumption research programme, 2006). click to view


Project outline

The following is the text of the original project proposal


Consumption in the public sector is often seen as different to that in the private sector. Alternatives are generally unavailable or too costly for consumers of public services. Public services are also thought to provide greater collective as well as individual benefits. For these reasons it has been argued that consumer involvement and representation are particularly important if consumer interests are adequately to be taken into account. This has led policy-makers and consumer organisations to call for the more intensive involvement of consumers in the governance and delivery of public services. Yet there are several different, sometimes competing ways for consumers' views to be represented, and their interaction is not well understood.

This project will look at four different sets of arrangements:

  1. hierarchical (e.g. consumers ask their MP or local councillor to take up an issue on their behalf)
  2. individualistic (e.g. consumers make a complaint directly to service managers)
  3. randomised (e.g. consumers complete a customer satisfaction survey form)
  4. mutualistic (e.g. consumers form or join groups where their collective voice can be heard)

The project focuses on the 'cultural' conditions in three distinct public services: health/social care, housing, and leisure. The project will examine the values and practices of public service consumers through their attitudes towards, and experiences of, these alternative ways of expressing their views. A key aim is to help all parties develop a more effective approach.

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Traditionally, public services were organised on a 'hierarchical' model. Consumers were thought of as passive recipients of mass-produced, one-size-fits-all services, and technical experts and political representatives made decisions on their behalf. Then in the 1980s and early 1990s it was increasingly assumed that consumers would be more adequately represented through 'individualistic' methods such as customer charters linked to complaints procedures. However, neither hierarchical nor individualistic arrangements have proved entirely satisfactory, each failing in different ways to solve problems of trust amongst consumers and citizens. These methods have rarely been enough to turn consumers into partners actively involved in shaping services or to achieve a radical shift of power away from producer interests.

In the search for an alternative or addition to existing models of consumer representation, a view is emerging that there should be a collaborative relationship between citizens and public administrators. This raises questions about the need for more intensive processes of consumer involvement and representation. It has led to the development of more 'randomised' procedures such as customer satisfaction surveys, one-off focus groups and citizen's juries, and 'mutualistic' methods such as the inclusion of user representatives in consumer councils, panels and forums, or on the governing structures of service organisations.

These newer methods are seen as overcoming the problems associated with more traditional arrangements for consumer voice and representation based on the market power of consumers and representation through the ballot box. However, despite many evaluations of these initiatives at the micro level there is still confusion as to what works, where it works, and why. Underlying these issues is a deeper one concerning different and competing constructions of the 'consumer'. Producers may routinely construct consumers according to their own perspective and interest, while consumers may accept these constructions, negotiate or contest them.

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The project seeks to answer three main questions:

  • How well do emerging forms of involvement and representation fit with older, more established methods?
  • How do public service consumers experience and evaluate the alternative ways in which their interests are represented?
  • To what extent do cultures of public service production and consumption coincide, and how do consumers and producers respond if there is a 'culture clash'?

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It is recognised that the nature of consumption in the public sector is complex. There is a diversity of interests, as well as of service settings. Yet this complexity has rarely been captured in academic research. This project will build up a detailed overview of consumer involvement and representation in a range of habitats. It will look at patterns of consumer involvement and representation in three public services: health/social care, housing and leisure services. These services have different cultural and institutional backgrounds that will allow us to see how the various forms of involvement and representation work in different settings. Two case studies will be undertaken in each service. The project will look for evidence that the service context plays a role in establishing the patterns of relationships between producers and consumers, both in different types of service and between different types of provider within the same service.

A mainly qualitative approach will be taken. In-depth interviews and focus groups will examine the ways consumers choose to be involved and why, their experiences of different types of involvement and representation, and how effective these methods are in practice. An analysis of relevant documentation, tracer studies and observations within each case setting will help to give a more detailed insight into the way that the service provider relates to consumers and vice-versa. Finally, once the range of themes and issues has been established, a survey will be used to determine the distribution of consumers' views in each of our six case studies.

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The project will show how consumers choose to be represented in the shifting environment of public services, and how producer and citizen interests have influenced and responded to new forms of consumer representation as these have emerged. This will provide consumers, service providers and policy-makers with valuable information about the most effective ways to balance the inputs from different forms of consumer involvement and representation, and to avoid potential 'culture clashes' between producers and consumers. Findings will be communicated in reports, articles in magazines and newspapers, and through discussions at meetings and conferences.


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