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Citizens, Charters and Concordats : how the Major Government confronted the challenge of engagement with civil society in public sector reform

Nicholas Deakin
p. 49-61


John Major arrived in power with the aspiration to put a “human face” on the policies of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. The main device which he and his advisors produced to achieve this outcome was the “Citizen’s Charter”, designed as means to secure improvements in public service delivery by treating users as consumers, with better access to information about the services they receive and scope for complaints. After the 1992 Election efforts were made to implement the Charter across a whole range of public services. These attempts were at first apparently successful but eventually fell into disrepute, as critics exposed various weaknesses in the approach adopted, of treating citizens as individual consumers. The incoming New Labour government retained the basic idea of setting standards and incorporated much of Major’s approach into their “target culture” for services. However, Major’s claim in his autobiography to have radically changed the nature of British public administration can be accepted only with qualifications.

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1Even long after the event, it is still easy to recall the sense of relief felt across the political spectrum – and both in and out of government – at the departure of Margaret Thatcher from No. 10 Downing Street, and the prospect of a quieter existence under a more emollient leader.

2However, John Major’s pronouncements during the brief leadership campaign gave no hint that he would be abandoning the main outlines of his predecessor’s policies. After all, he had secured her rather patronising endorsement as her successor. In the economic field the “Thatcher Revolution” would roll on ; privatisation would continue as a key instrument of policy (British Rail was even then in the waiting room as the next candidate to go to market).

3Nor was there any suggestion of a change in policy on the machinery of government. Fundamental reform of the public services had been one of the main themes of the Thatcher government, with models introduced from the business sector designed to lead to greater efficiency and better financial accountability to both government and citizens, as taxpayers. The style of the “New Public Management”, as it was introduced during the eighties at both central and local government level was confrontational, splitting up, hiving off and in extreme cases abolishing layers of government.

4This process culminated in the much-disliked “poll tax”, the rock on which the Thatcher government finally foundered. This was devised partly as an instrument to keep unruly “municipal socialists” in check but was also seen as a means of introducing a form of market competition into public services and inviting local consumers of those services to exercise their choices through the ballot box.

5The brief honeymoon period that the Major government enjoyed allowed the Prime Minister to dispose of the hated poll tax without any significant resistance from Thatcherite true believers. The manner of his conduct of Britain’s involvement with the first Gulf War demonstrated the generally popular contrast between his style and that of his bellicose predecessor. Much public discontent with the style of the “revolution” was assuaged : this was indeed “Thatcherism with a human face”. But there was still lasting dissatisfaction with some of the content.

  • 1  HO Efficiency Scrutiny, 1990, as referred to by John Patten (1991).

6This unhappiness was particularly marked in what had come to be called the “voluntary and community sector”. Organisations operating outside the mainstream of public administration had been caught up in the backwash generated by the Thatcher government’s public service reforms. Frequently, they found themselves engaged by that government in the delivery of social services as more flexible (or perhaps cheaper ?) alternatives to public sector providers. The resulting arrangements became known as the “contract culture” and the form they took generated much resentment. This was exacerbated by the government’s understandable desire to secure value for the taxpayer’s investment in the expansion of provision of services by these voluntary and community bodies. The Home Office’s Efficiency Scrutiny (1990) was promoted within government as a means by which civil servants issuing contracts could secure better value for money1. But those at the receiving end of this kind of scrutiny tended to see it as an intrusion into the right to manage their own affairs.

  • 2  For which see Kate Jenkins (2008).

7There was also, more generally, a sense that the structural reforms of the public sector in the 1980s, conceived of as an attempt to tame the large public sector empires by breaking them up and subjecting them to market-type disciplines, had become mechanical - even themselves bureaucratised (Kate Jenkins, one the main authors of the Next Steps programme, writes feelingly about this over-elaboration of the reform process – the proliferation of “units” and glossy publications)2.

8So, almost from the beginning of the new Prime Minister’s period in office, the question began to be raised : what did the softer, more humane version of Thatcherite public policy mean in practice ? Was there a “big idea” that would exemplify it ?

Towards a Charter

9Early in the Major Prime Ministership much debate had taken place both behind the scenes, in No 10 and the policy unit there and in public on exactly what a suitable theme might be. The idea of securing the rights of consumers of public services by giving them entitlements formally collated in a public document or documents was identified as one of the possible lines for development. Such an idea was not entirely new ; it had been experimented with in local government during the 1980s : prominent figures in the right wing think tanks (like Dr Madson Pirie at the Adam Smith Institute) had toyed with a similar idea. Most important, it chimed in with the new Prime Minister’s own experience, first as a chair of the housing committee at Lambeth borough council at the beginning of his political career and then as a junior minister at the Department of Health and Social Security.

10Writing later in his autobiography, Major also describes the personal background to his concern about the standard public services. Writing as someone whose family had depended on them during his own youth and whose experience with the NHS after a serious accident abroad had been wholly positive, he distinguished his position, as someone with a ‘personal and emotional’ commitment to reform, from that of some of the ideologues in his own party who had allowed themselves, ‘carelessly, sometimes tactlessly’ to be seen as not caring about improving the public sector. He writes :

  • 3  Major, J. The Autobiography, pp 246, 248

‘ rest our fortunes entirely on privatisation seemed to me too ideological, too lacking in vision or ambition. The services that could not and should not be privatised – chiefly schools and hospitals – were important to millions of daily lives. In order to achieve improvement in them I knew I would have to confront old attitudes both towards the public services and inside them. The Tory right were not the only ones with an attitude problem. They believed the only good public service was a privatised one ; but the vast majority of civil servants, even in the Treasury, seemed to believe the only way a service could be improved was to throw money at it’3.

11In actively valuing public services in this way, Major differed sharply from his predecessor. Margaret Thatcher notoriously avoided the public sector in her personal dealings : her children were educated privately, she used private medicine when ill and never travelled by public transport when that could be avoided.

12The work on developing the idea fell to the Prime Minister’s policy unit (while we wait for the papers to be opened for scrutiny we have a very full account in Sarah Hogg and Jonathan Hill’s account of the earlier part of the Major Prime Ministership, Too Close to Call (1995). This was Sarah Hogg’s rationale, as Head of the No. 10 Policy Unit, for adopting this approach :

  • 4  Hogg and Hill, p. 104

‘ Just as the Conservatives had dominated the agenda in the 1980s with privatisation, so in the 1990s they could drive it forward with public service reform, devising a toolkit of ideas that would apply market stimuli and private sector skills to the task of raising public sector standards. Competition in a free market creates ‘people power’. It forces producers to listen to consumers..’4

13And, as she almost forgets to add, it would help to subvert the grip of the powerful public sector trades unions.

14Perhaps not surprisingly, the Treasury didn’t like the idea one bit ; any new initiative involving the expenditure of public money in which they were not taking the lead was anathema. But they were borne down by the weight of the Prime Minister’s personal enthusiasm and his staff’s dexterous use of the Cabinet Office machine to counter the reluctance of the service departments (education, housing, transport) whose involvement would be crucial. In March 1991 the Prime Minister flagged up the new approach in a speech to the Conservative Central Council ; in June a private seminar at Chequers elaborated the detail. By July the new “Citizen’s Charter” was ready to be launched.

15The White Paper (‘Raising the Standard’) reaffirmed the government’s commitment to privatisation and further contracting out of public services but implicitly accepted that many services should remain within the public sector. They would accordingly need to become more sensitive to the needs of consumers and the means proposed were :

  • Publication of service standards, tougher inspection ; a Charter Mark award for those achieving those standards ;

  • Openness : elimination of secrecy about organisational arrangements and personal identification of staff ;

  • Information : regular provision of information about performance targets and whether they have been met ;

  • Choice : ‘the public sector should provide choice wherever practicable’ ;

  • No discrimination by race or sex.

  • Accessibility : flexible opening hours and quick responses to telephone inquiries ;

  • Proper redress when things go wrong – ‘at the very least a good explanation, or an apology’.

  • 5  All in Cm 1599 (HMSO, 1991)

16The Charter also stressed that better services could be achieved without a need for increased expenditure : it was to apply across the public sector, to central and local government, to Next Steps agencies, the police and the courts5.

17The White Paper was generally well received on publication. Its supporters saw the Charter as an attempt to soften the crudity of the previous approach that regarded the citizen primarily as a taxpayer merely in search of value for money. The new approach should empower the citizen as a consumer, through giving individuals access to better information about the services being delivered. It would improve accountability by scrutiny of performance and where appropriate provide remedies through complaints procedures. And it would do so openly - the Charter was intended to be prominently displayed in offices dealing with the public and flexibly : the Charter would be adapted where necessary to fit local circumstances.

18There was a rush to claim authorship of the idea ; and a plethora of subordinate Charters were rapidly issued, covering a whole range of services. Some private companies issued their own versions. A unit was established in Whitehall to ‘drive the process of  implementation’ with an advisory committee under the chairmanship of the chairman of Boots the chemists – and former head of sales at the Ministry of Defence.

  • 6  eg Deakin, N., 1994
  • 7  Hogg and Hill, 1995, p. 94

19Critics of the charter argued that the nature of the citizen’s relationship with public services was fundamentally different to that of the purchaser of goods in the market. Furthermore, there were issues about collective relationships with service delivery agencies as well as individual ones – as some critics suggested, the apostrophe was misplaced : what was needed was a Citizens’ Charter.6 (Apparently the same debate took place behind the scenes and was settled firmly in favour of the singular – this exercise was to be about individual, not collective rights7).


  • 8  Waldegrave 1993, p. 10

20John Major’s unexpected victory in the 1992 General Election was gained on a platform that proclaimed that the Citizen’s Charter would be ‘the centrepiece of our policies’. After the election William Waldegrave was entrusted with the responsibility of turning the Charter into a reality, as head of a new Office of Public Service and Science (rudely known to its critics as “offpiss”). In a subsequent pamphlet Waldegrave conceded that the language used in the course of the privatisations of the 1980s had been insufficiently focussed on the needs of service users, but claimed that the terms of the Citizens Charter had begun to turn the national debate in the right direction and to move discussion away from the level of expenditure towards the prime importance of satisfying users’ needs8.

21However, some critics saw the Charter as weak in precisely the area where it sought to be strong – the satisfaction of consumer grievances – using the language of citizenship but failing to provide a satisfactory means of delivering on citizens’ rights. Nor did the Charter require any reciprocity on the part of the consumer – the relationship was in no sense contractual, in any legal sense ; individual users of the Charter machinery were not expected to take on any obligations or responsibilities. Then, the definition of providers could be problematic : in large public bureaucracies the immediate impact of the new approach was necessarily on front line staff – those with least power to remedy any structural deficiencies in the services they were delivering. The Charter Mark scheme went some way to meeting this objection by offering symbolic rewards for good service but the general criticism that the Charters were ‘all sticks and no carrots’ still had considerable force.

  • 9  Hogg and Hill, p. 104

22And then there was the notorious traffic cones hot line, dreamed up by the Department of Transport under pressure as a means of mollifying drivers suffering from motorway rage after being penned in by plastic cones. The “hotline” turned out to be simply the Department’s main switchboard : the absence of any remedy turned the whole operation into a damaging farce – it is probably now what many people remember best about the whole Charter.9

  • 10  Guardian, 12.6.93

23Despite such criticism – and some initial mockery – the Citizen’s Charter and its clones, particularly in the health service – eventually made some progress and significant coverage of different public sector providers (and those with whom they were involved) was achieved. The Charter Mark award achieved a respectable level of publicity. To some extent, the Major government’s approach had succeeded in meeting the immediate goal that had been set, of promoting a shift of attitudes among service providers. But on the wider political objective of promoting the government’s agenda with a “big idea” success proved more elusive. As the Conservatives entered their prolonged period of internal crisis in 1993 the respected political commentator  Hugo Young wrote scathingly about Major’s ‘forgettably meagre’ contribution to public policy making : ‘a council tax that reinvents the rates and a citizen’s charter that most people regard as a joke’10

Charter and Concordat

  • 11  Quoted Deakin 1991, p. 11
  • 12  Patten 1991, p. 9

24The Major government’s efforts to reconcile the voluntary and community sector to the Conservative agenda on service delivery by voluntary agencies also rested in part on the introduction of the “Citizen’s Charter”. At this point, the attitude of Ministers towards voluntary organisations tended towards the patronising : for example, Chris Patten, interviewed when chairman of the Conservative party, declared that ‘we should milk them of ideas and widen our discussions with them so that it goes beyond haggling about money and the trench warfare that we still see..’11 His namesake John Patten (then Minister responsible for voluntary sector matters) was crisply practical : ‘To be effective, government must concentrate its resources where they are most needed. The voluntary sector does valuable work to meet local needs, supplement government action and fill gaps where they exist. We will continue to provide funding where and when it is right to do so’.12

25So voluntary bodies found themselves viewed as agencies fit to be funded, because they were capable of delivering services flexibly, able to innovate and experiment, cost effective and adaptable to the needs and preferences of their users. As such, they could be valuable additions to the range of agencies participating in the official “contract culture”. But there was a problem for many organisations : how to reconcile this strictly utilitarian view of their activities with the values around which they were created and that their activities should still embody.

  • 13  Published under the title ‘Meeting the Challenge of Change’
  • 14  Raising the Voltage’ (1996), p. 2
  • 15  See eg Compact Action Plan 2006-8 (COI, 2007)

26Critics who believed that this “contract culture” posed a serious threat to the ethos of voluntary action had an alternative model for the relationship with government. They argued for a “concordat” between providers and government, covering the whole range of relationships with government, central and local, including crucially the financial aspects. That idea had been trailed in general terms by Labour’s rising star Tony Blair in his Goodman Lecture (1993) and was given explicit form by an independent inquiry into the future of voluntary action (NCVO, 1996)13. Although the incumbent government disliked the idea, dismissing it as redundant,14 the approval of a parallel Labour party investigation (Alun Michael) meant that this alternative approach – a formalised partnership agreement with subordinate codes – prevailed. In 1998 it was formally signed off by the Home Secretary in the new Labour government and a representative body for the Voluntary and Community Sector, rather hastily cobbled together for that purpose. So the “concordat” became the Compact, which not unlike the Citizen’s Charter was  duplicated at local level and eventually imitated internationally. At the time of writing, it is still a central feature of the Brown administration’s “Third Sector” policy.15

Winding Down

  • 16  PAC Twelfth Report, 2008, Para 17

27The Charter itself was rebranded when Major lost power in 1997 as the "public service charter" and gradually run down. But it remains a significant episode in the attempt to promote a modified approach to public sector reform. Many themes explored during the Charter episode were carried over in practice by the Blair government (though typically without giving any credit to their predecessors). Two successive reviews by House of Commons Select Committees (1998 and 2008) have found many positive features to commend. The 2008 inquiry concluded that : ‘The Citizen’s Charter has had a lasting impact on how public services are viewed in this country. The initiative’s underlying principles retain their validity nearly two decades on – not least the importance of putting the interests of public service users at the heart of public service provision. We believe this cardinal principle should continue to influence public service reform’.16 International initiatives around the general theme of a charter with entitlements also continue to flourish.

  • 17  Drewry, G. p. 13
  • 18  Ibid, p. 14.

28Gavin Drewry’s conclusion (2005) is that the whole charter movement should be seen ‘as a series of packages, of broadly similar shape, but with different wrapping paper to suit the location and the occasion…variants of the charter package can be comfortably embraced both by New Right free market individualist and by New Left collectivists with communitarian leanings’17. Though he adds : ‘the ostensible message of charters – simultaneously bureau-sceptical and appealing to democratic and populist sentiments – is hard for anyone to quarrel with (but)…’ the promise of better and more user-friendly service with no extra burden falling on the taxpayer may seem almost too good to be true’18

29In sum, the basic idea proved to “have legs”, which took governments, local and national to some unexpected places. The principles of greater openness, accountability and significant redress acquired over time general support although the means of securing them moved away from the Charter blueprint. One particularly useful aspect of the Citizen’s Charter reforms was the attempt to achieve more positive recognition of the role of the front-line staff – that low paid, often feminised group, with high representation from minorities of all kinds - who stood to benefit from a scheme like the Charter Mark which explicitly and publicly valued their services. Indeed, this scheme alone still survives intact and has been shown to be of substantial benefit both to staff morale and to the efficiency of the services being delivered.

30One less desirable legacy of the Charter movement has been the stress on performance measures, often set from the centre and imposed on locally managed services. Targets deriving from information collected about service delivery have proved inflexible in practice, cramping and confining the activities of agencies and imposing excessive costs of collection. The production of “ league tables” of performance has put heavy pressure on delivers of services and too often distorted their approach through efforts to secure better rankings. The information gathered is also frequently misleading, sometimes by design (targets being set deliberately low in order to be capable of achievement). Sometimes, the interpretation of information can be problematic : a rise in complaints may not always be evidence of poor performance – it can also mean that higher expectations based on better experiences has made the public more demanding and less resigned. More complaints may actually be signalling a better service.

31New Labour after their election in 1997 took over the initial Charter framework of performance measures and introduced during its first term in office an expanded target regime, before eventually recognising that the costs were disproportionate to any benefits that could flow from the accumulation of endless detail about service delivery.

32By contrast, the Compact between government and voluntary sector that the Labour government introduced differs sharply from the Charter in explicitly valuing mutual engagement. The Compact is a partnership expressed through a common agreement in which both parties accept obligations – a different basis from the Citizen’s Charter’s unilateral declarations, without reciprocity of commitment. Both have in common, though, that they are not legally binding documents and therefore not justiciable – not always an easy point to get across to those brought up in a different tradition of public law.

  • 19  Autobiography, p. 251

33But perhaps the last word on the whole episode should go to John Major himself. He refers to the whole episode in highly positive terms in his autobiography - incidentally revealing that he had hoped to call it the People’s Charter but had been dissuaded by colleagues who thought that frivolous19. ‘Many sophisticates scoffed at the Citizen’s Charter because they did not understand it’ he says. But the Charter ‘was not a magic wand. I never claimed that it would be. It was the launch of a long, slow process of change…It is not a process that can easily be defined, nor perhaps distilled in the headlines. Yet I am convinced that it was right, that its effects have been far-reaching and beneficial, and that it is here to stay’.

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Blair, Tony, ‘New Community ; New Individualism : how Labour can win the country’ Tenth Arnold Goodman Lecture, July 1993

Cabinet Office : The Citizen’s Charter : Raising the Standard Cm 1599, July 1991

Deakin, N., ‘Government and the Voluntary Sector in the 1990s’ Policy Studies, 12.3, Autumn 1991, 11-22

Deakin, N., ‘Accentuating the Apostrophe’ Policy Studies 15.3 Autumn 1994 48-58

Department of National Heritage : ‘Raising the Voltage’ : a response to the Deakin Report 1996

Drewry, G. ‘Citizens as Customers – Charters and the Contractualisation of Quality in Public service’ Paper presented to EGPA Conference, Bern, 2005

Hogg, S. and Hill, J. Too Close to Call - Power and Politics : John Major in No. 10 Little Brown, 1995

Home Office Efficiency Scrutiny of Government Funding for the Voluntary Sector HMSO 1991

House of Commons Select Committee on Public Service Third Report of Session 1996-7 The Citizen’s Charter NC 78-1

House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration Twelfth Report of Session 2007-8 HC 409

Jenkins, Kate ‘Politicians and Civil Servants : unfinished business’ Political Quarterly, 79.3 July September 2008

Major, John, The Autobiography Harper Collins 2000

National Council for Voluntary Organisations : Meeting the Challenge of Change NCVO 1996

Patten, C., ‘Big Battalions and Little Platoons’ The Seventh Arnold Goodman Lecture, June 1990

Patten, J., ‘Government, Business and the Voluntary Sector : a Developing Partnership’ Policy Studies, 12.3 Autumn 1991, 4-10

Waldegrave, William, Public Services and the Future, Conservative Political Centre, 1993, 10.

Young, Hugo ‘You clap, I’ll sing’ Guardian, 21.6.1993, p. 21

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1  HO Efficiency Scrutiny, 1990, as referred to by John Patten (1991).

2  For which see Kate Jenkins (2008).

3  Major, J. The Autobiography, pp 246, 248

4  Hogg and Hill, p. 104

5  All in Cm 1599 (HMSO, 1991)

6  eg Deakin, N., 1994

7  Hogg and Hill, 1995, p. 94

8  Waldegrave 1993, p. 10

9  Hogg and Hill, p. 104

10  Guardian, 12.6.93

11  Quoted Deakin 1991, p. 11

12  Patten 1991, p. 9

13  Published under the title ‘Meeting the Challenge of Change’

14  Raising the Voltage’ (1996), p. 2

15  See eg Compact Action Plan 2006-8 (COI, 2007)

16  PAC Twelfth Report, 2008, Para 17

17  Drewry, G. p. 13

18  Ibid, p. 14.

19  Autobiography, p. 251

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Nicholas Deakin, « Citizens, Charters and Concordats : how the Major Government confronted the challenge of engagement with civil society in public sector reform »Observatoire de la société britannique, 7 | 2009, 49-61.

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Nicholas Deakin, « Citizens, Charters and Concordats : how the Major Government confronted the challenge of engagement with civil society in public sector reform »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 7 | 2009, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 27 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicholas Deakin

Professeur de sciences politiques à la London School of Economics and Political Sciences

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