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project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

Creating Citizen-Consumers: Changing Relationships and Identifications

The idea that people expect to be treated as consumers by public services has become a central theme in public service reform.

This research explored what people who provide and use public services thought about this idea and the changes it is bringing about. It surveyed and talked to the public, frontline staff and managers in three services – health care, policing and social care – during 2003 and 2004.

This project ran from April 2003 to May 2005

visit this project's own pages>>

image illustrating findings

view this project's findings summary sheet [pdf]

Project team
John Clarke award holder
Janet Newman
Nick Smith
Elizabeth Vidler
Louise Westmarland

Professor John Clarke
Faculty of Social Sciences
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA

+44 (0)1908 654 530

Publications include:

book cover image

Creating Citizen-Consumers: Changing Publics and Changing Public Services
John Clarke, Janet Newman, Nick Smith, Elizabeth Vidler and Louise Westmarland (London: Sage, 2007)

This book explores a range of theoretical, political, policy and practice issues that arise in the shift towards consumerism. It draws on recent controversies about choice to examine the tensions of modernising public services to meet the demands of a consumer society.

For further information visit the book's page with Sage


Clarke J., Smith N. and Vidler E. Creating Citizen- Consumers: Inequalities and Instabilities, in Powell M., Clarke K. and Bauld L.(eds.), Social Policy Review17, (Bristol: The Policy Press, 2005).

Vidler E. and Clarke J. Creating Citizen-Consumers: New Labour and the Remaking of Public Services, in Public Policy and Administration 20 (2)(2005), pp. 19-37.


Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal


Public services in the UK have been under pressure to develop a more consumerist orientation. For some, this marks a change in models of citizenship that have linked the public and public services. This project examines how three services - health care, policing and social care - have adapted to these pressures. These services have different types of user and have developed different sorts of relationship with them - so how have they responded to the consumerist imperative? Do sectoral differences affect how a consumerist orientation is developed? The project will look at service providers based in public, private and voluntary sector based organizations. It will also contrast different localities - to see whether local political and cultural histories influence approaches to service users.

The second strand of this project will explore whether users of services see themselves as consumers, or as citizens, patients, members of the public. We will ask how they experience the consumerist adaptations that service organizations have developed. Who do users think they are when they approach - or are approached by - service providers? What sorts of identities govern their interactions with public services?

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The reform, improvement and modernization of public services have been a continuing preoccupation of UK governments. Funding regimes have changed, new forms of public-private mix have emerged, new systems of scrutiny and evaluation have been created. Many of these changes have been directed at satisfying the 'demanding, sceptical citizen-consumer' who uses public services. In this view, a modern society is a consumer society - and public services need to keep up with the consumer relationships that we experience in the rest of our lives. In particular, public services should offer both 'choice' (the basic element of the consumerist orientation) and high standards of service.

The result is that service providers have faced pressure to develop a more consumerist approach to their relationships with the users of their services. Our project explores the consequences of these pressures for change. The relationships with service users and the types of encounter with users vary between services. Visiting a public library is different from attending an Accident and Emergency department. So we have set out to explore how different services - health care, policing, and social care - have responded to the consumerist imperative. In part, this may reflect the different conditions in which people encounter the services - encounters which may, for example, be freely chosen, involuntary or coerced. We do not think there will be one 'consumer' model - but differing interpretations and adaptations across the services.

There may be other sorts of variation, too. We will be looking across sectors to see whether public, private and voluntary organizations deal with the users of their services differently. Do they construct different sorts of relationships? Do voluntary agencies escape from the sort of 'paternalism' traditionally associated with public sector providers? Do private sector organizations do 'real' consumer-centred processes? We also wonder whether geography makes a difference. Is consumerism more advanced in 'new' or 'old' towns? The consumer imperative is critical of the paternalism of 'old style' public services. So, does a local history of long-established public provision inhibit the move towards a consumerist relationship with service users?

Finally, we will be looking at how service users see themselves. Do they recognise themselves as consumers - and if so, what does this mean for them? How does the shift towards consumerism intersect with, or affect, other identities? Do they think of themselves as citizens, members of the public, or other more service specific identities? Individuals and groups may experience services in different ways, and will have both expectations and experiences of the services they encounter. The project will be exploring 'who they think they are' when they enter into relationships with service providers.

The project aims to take stock of one of the central dynamics of change in public services in the UK. It aims to tell policy-makers, service organizations and service users what the 'consumer revolution' has delivered - and how it has been experienced by the 'consumers'.

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  • How have public service organizations adapted to the consumerist imperative?
  • What effects do difference between services have on the movement to a more consumerist orientation?
  • Do sectoral differences (between public, private and voluntary organizations) affect what consumerism means for relations with service users?
  • Does geography matter? Do places with different histories and cultures of public services respond to the consumer imperative differently?
  • How do users experience the moves towards consumerist relationships?
  • Who do service users think they are?

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The project will explore three services: health care, policing, and social care. In each, we will take one aspect of the service as the focus of a case study. We will look at organisational policies towards service users, through written documents and interviews with senior management. We will then survey and interview 'front-line' staff about how a consumer orientation has affected their dealings with the public and those who come to use the service. This will provide the basis for service comparisons.

We will look at alternative providers - in the private/for-profit and voluntary/not-for-profit sectors - to explore how they address and relate to service users. We will replicate the same pattern of documents, surveys and interviews used in then public sector organisations. This will provide the basis for sectoral comparison, and enable us to see how sectoral boundaries are changing.

The study will look at services in two different places, trying to compare a locality that has a long established history of expansive public service provision with one that has developed more recently - a 'new town'. This comparison is intended to explore whether local political histories and social and cultural patterns affect the development of consumerist orientations. This approach will provide a basis for spatial comparison.

In relation to each service organisation, we will be surveying and interviewing people who are using the service - whether voluntarily or not. We aim to discover how the experience their relationship with the service; whether they think of themselves as consumers; and how they identify themselves in relation to public services. We also intend to talk to organizations that represent user interests to explore their views on the shift towards consumerism.

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We aim to use the information and analyses generated in the project as the basis for conversations with different groups: user bodies, service organisation and national policy-makers. All three groups have an interest in how the relationships between services and users are working - and in how they might develop in the future. We also aim to address more academic debates about changing public services, changing states, and changing forms and experiences of citzenship - both in the UK and elsewhere.



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