The role of public services in Citizen’s Income

If we are to live peacefully in a prosperous future in which all can make their best contribution to the whole, then every citizen needs to be assured of their safety. Advocates of public services and advocates of a Citizen’s Income share this vision.

There are two schools of supporters for Citizen’s Income. There are those who see Citizen’s Income as an alternative to providing social safety services (for instance, Milton Friedman and Charles Mead in the USA), and there are those of us who see Citizen’s Income as a part of a package that aims to deliver universal social safety. The Citizen’s Income Trust, and LIFE, which I represent, are firmly in the second camp. We know that a social safety net of public services must exist in a civilised society, even with a Citizen’s Income.

So the debate becomes one about what is best delivered as a service, and what is best delivered through a Citizen’s Income. There are existing universal services that we all acknowledge as the best way to achieve the objectives of social safety, such as the NHS and school education. These are examples of universal public services that deliver unconditional, non means tested vital support to every citizen.

So what else can be best delivered as a public service? This is fertile ground for exploration, and one in which everyone’s contributions are helpful and important, so we would welcome feedback to this article.

Here are two examples that can help to inform this debate: transport and information/communications. Getting around and staying in touch are both vital aspects of living in a modern society, so we must accommodate these in any comprehensive approach to delivering universal social safety. Every citizen needs to be able to get to and from their place of work, the doctor’s surgery, the hospital, their friends, their school or college, or to personally observe their democratically elected politicians in action. Modern human society is also dependent on digital connections, to communicate, say informed, work, and contribute. Given the necessity of enabling every citizen’s access to both transport and communications, what is the best way to do that?

We have to qualify what we mean by the ‘best way’ to achieve our objectives. We are talking about delivering the basic features as a universal right to every citizen, and we are talking about funding these out of taxes. With those elements in mind, we need to keep a keen eye on the efficiency of the delivery, and delivering sufficient quality and quantity to satisfy basic needs. Citizen’s Income is often called ‘basic income’ for the same reason: because the objective is ensure the safety of every citizen, not necessarily the comfort of every citizen. So when we talk about the ‘best way’ to do anything in this context, we mean the most efficient way to achieve the minimum standards that we consider sufficient to deliver the promise of safety to each citizen.

In the case of transport, the ‘best way’ to deliver the basic transport needs of most citizens is to ensure that there is a functional public transport system. It is almost always more cost effective to run a bus schedule than it is to pay every citizen sufficient income to run their own car (although in very dispersed rural communities this is less obvious, and, as is always the case with all attempts to deliver social safety, the practice must be finally determined by local communities, because they are best suited to understand the specific challenges of their environments, and are best suited to adapt the use of tax revenues to achieve the objectives in the most efficient way for their situation.)

Giving to every citizen a free local public transport pass (like the ‘Freedom Pass’ that older and disabled people receive) would deliver the promise of access for all and have significant environmental benefits. It is difficult to put a number on the amount of car miles that would be replaced if we had better public transport and if it was free to use in our local communities, but even if we assume that only 10% of car users would reduce their car use by 10%, that still means 3,100,000,000 fewer car miles driven each year in the UK. That is one million tons of greenhouse gasses.

Keeping citizens connected in today’s society is vital personally, commercially, and democratically. And increasingly, mobile devices like smartphones and tablets are both the preferred means of communicating and the means with the widest reach. Data networks are also taking over from voice-phone networks, and now voice calls are easily carried over internet connections. So ensuring that every citizen has access to basic internet services would help to ensure that everyone remains connected to each other and wider society.

We could give to each individual a cash allowance to buy their own service, but an alternative would be to offer to each provider (BT, O2, EE, TalkTalk, etc) a fixed amount for every citizen they sign up. Each provider would compete to offer their best package of services for this basic fee, and citizens would be free to pick the provider of their choice. The service would effectively be uncancellable, because there would be no bill to manage or pay – the provider would simply submit a list of citizens to the government and receive payment directly. Citizens could sign up to add extra services on top, for which they would pay extra, but even if they failed to pay that bill the provider would always be obliged to continue at least the basic services. We would get the benefit of bulk buying to reduce costs and increase service levels, we would experience the simplicity of bill-free services, and we would keep the advantage of competition between providers.

At LIFE we feel that the best way to deliver the essential services of local transport and communications is through free public transport passes and free basic communications services. They would be cheaper than distributing cash, they would be irrevocable, and they would deliver on the promise of social safety for all.

We would welcome discussion on the right balance between public services and Citizen’s Income.

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