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Market economics not the solution for human services

  • 12 August 2016


There is a well-known joke about a drunken man looking for a coin under a streetlight: he had dropped it elsewhere, in the dark, but was looking under the streetlight because he could see more clearly there.

In the same way, the thinking behind the Productivity Commission inquiry into increasing competition, contestability and informed user choice in human services is fundamentally flawed.

Using a contestable market to make the delivery of human services more effective and responsive is simply misdirected. The complexity and interconnectedness of human services — for individuals, community, and our whole society — is too challenging for market economics to properly address.

The consumer is given a lot of status and assumed power in the inquiry's terms of reference, because she or he gets to choose where their favour, or funding, is delivered. We are led to believe this will result in more appropriate, desirable, responsive services. But the problem is that consumers do not shape the products they consume, they simply choose between them.

The true value of such a consumer is as an income stream for the service provider. It might appear to be a convenient way of evaluating the allocation of resources but it's a step in the wrong direction for a society where the human services we deliver are — or ought to be — part of a larger, shared, social project which values the people using services as highly it does those producing them.

The best human services are the result of co-production. They may be a part of a community endeavour or an individual relationship between the person at the heart of the service and the people working with them. But defining someone simply as a consumer takes away any expectation that they will be a partner in the design and delivery of the service.

Such an approach also works against more expansive notions of collaboration between community organisations, service providers and public institutions. We are asking the service user to select from a menu of products that may or may not build on other community or social connections; feed into the ongoing wellbeing of other people; or add to or detract from the greater good of the wider society. We aren't giving them much of a chance to make a difference.

The implication that giving people consumer choice enhances their autonomy and respect, and improves the quality of the services they can get, is itself problematic.


"As consumers,