I’ve covered the idea of Universal Basic Services a couple of times on the blog, with this explainer, and then with a review of the book The Case For Universal Basic Services. That book has now become a campaign, and they set out their stall at The Social Guarantee.
The idea of Universal Basic Services is that there are a handful of basic services that everyone needs, and it is often cheaper and more efficient to provide those collectively. That’s a broadly recognised principle in certain fields. It’s not controversial for governments to take responsibility for education and security. Most people would see healthcare as a basic service best provided for everyone, with the Republican party in the US a notable ideological outlier on that issue.
At various times and in various places, the list of things considered essential has read differently. My grandparents’ generation recognised housing as a national priority in ways abandoned since. Council housing projects, such as this award winning one in Norwich, are now rather rare. Childcare hasn’t been high on the agenda here, but it has in Norway, where the government covers 85% of early years childcare costs.
There are pioneering new ‘essentials’ too. Countries such as Lithuania and Croatia provide universal free wi-fi across the country, and Croatia is experimenting with free public transport.
These sorts of programmes are brought together in the idea of a Social Guarantee, a political vision for a society in which everyone can be confident of the basics. You’ll always be able to make your own choices, but nobody needs to fall through the cracks. It solves the problem of left behind areas where people end up without essential services because they’re beyond the scope of the commercial providers (eg rural bus routes or broadband) or can’t afford them.
In certain hands, this kind of grand social contract would suggest central planning and big government. But that’s not a given and the idea shouldn’t be rejected on that basis. The state guaranteeing something doesn’t have to mean state provision. Like Norway’s childcare sector, the best model seems to be a hybrid one, with partnerships between public and private organisations, charities and community owned operators.
It’s early days for the Social Guarantee campaign, and it’s a modest initiative that doesn’t come with any big endorsements or coalition of NGOs. But I’m interested to see how the conversation about basic services develops in the coming years.