When are Public Services Successful?

How do we judge the quality of public services? That question is far trickier than it appears.

In some cases the answer seems simple enough: whether trains run on time. But is this really all we want from our trains?

Surely not. They should be safe, too, and reasonably comfortable. They should run not only on time, but at the right time and at reasonable intervals. More important still, they should be affordable. As the list of criteria grows longer, it becomes evident that the most easily measured component, punctuality, is but one of many desirable features, and not necessarily the most significant.

This example is relevant for the politics of public services, which dominates debate in many countries because it lies at the heart of the big problems of both government budgets (and cutting them back) and taxes (and their reduction). In keeping with the spirit of the times, governments introduce business criteria for measuring the efficiency--and the "success," more generally--of public services. This means, above all, that they set performance targets.