Ebay, ebay, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?

On Saturday I was standing on a train platform behind a middle-aged couple, and the lady said “I had to explain to a ten year old about life not being fair yesterday”. It turned out the 10 year old had been hanging around with a ‘naughty boy’, and naughtiness had ensued, and the child had been punished despite not actually having perpetrated the specific naughty deed. When challenged, he admitted that he had committed other acts of naughtiness which had gone undetected and unpunished, but karma did not figure in his learning to date.

The gentleman (I am in the habit of eavesdropping, clearly) pointed out that this feeling continues into later life. If you find a ten pound note you had forgotten in the pocket of an old jacket, you may be pleased for a moment and consider all the things you could buy, but you will (he contended, I think rightly) not be pleased as greatly or for as long as you would be upset if you put a ten pound note through the laundry and ruined it irretrievably. More of this later.

Ebay has been the example of choice for those talking about the latest bright idea for improving citizen feedback about local services. Essentially, that people who have had an experience with a public service provider will be able to go to a website and share that rating with the world. In fairness it’s not an entirely novel idea, something quite similar has existed at Patient Opinion for a little while, although Patient Opinion is a social enterprise, not an arm of either central or local government. I should say I have some sympathy for this sort of proposal – public satisfaction must be near the top of public service priorities, and I am broadly of the “what gets measured gets done” school, so let’s measure the important thing more, and the stupid procedural demands and wacky Whitehall “proxy measure targets” less.

It has become a convention on Ebay that you say nice things about everyone, you get an A++++ just for doing what you had already promised. Go above and beyond and heaven knows how high your rating might grow. Of course some might argue that Ebay has at times been tempted to go a little too far in defending the interests of the consumer. I imagine half of this would be true, and half untrue, when applied to the public sector. The producer would probably not be looked upon kindly if they started giving bad reviews to service users – “Awful, whines about the meals on wheels being cold even when we stay at her house and microwave them in front of her”, etc. I am, however, less optimistic that the reviews will be positive.

This is not because I think everyone is bleakly depressed at the state of public services. Many would like them to be better, and almost all would like them to be delivered in return for a lower amount of tax, but surveys nonetheless suggest that people rate local services quite highly, and indeed tend to rate them more highly than the organisations delivering them – “Libraries great, schools good, social care decent, roads alright, Council rubbish” syndrome.

It is because of a truth brought home to me some years ago when, having no concept of appropriate professional boundaries, I was sitting in the pub one evening with the then Leader of my then Council, when one of the barflies who knew him a little wandered over and asked how things were going. “Council’s going ok at the moment”, said my Leader, “but nobody believes me when I tell them that!”. “The problem is”, replied the wise local, “you’re changing things, and when you change things, some people win, and some people lose. But the people who lose will be mad at you forever, and the people who win will think it just happened by magic”.

At risk of turning this into an argument for Burkean Conservatism, I thought that was a very important point, which I had intuitively always known, but had never heard put so succinctly. I am, I freely admit, entirely the same. I never turn up in the office and declare “I’m here at a sensible hour, my bus was great, bang on time and I got a seat”, I only ever mention my travel to work when a crisis of some sort has arisen. With ten people in an office, public transport could be 90% reliable, but on an average day, someone would have a tale of woe to tell. What view would an eleventh, car-driving, colleague form of the reliability of local public transport?

I was reminded of this by the couple on the train platform, but I was reminded of something else – the Government proposals didn’t just talk about Ebay, they also talked about TripAdvisor, which performs a community-reviewing function for hotels and guesthouses. I am a big fan of TripAdvisor – I get the opportunity to do a certain amount of travelling in support of my work, whether to accompany elected members to events, or to go on factfinding trips, and I pride myself on getting good value for money out of my accommodation, whether someone else is paying or not.

There is something odd about TripAdvisor, and it is this: There are a phenomenal number of positive reviews on there. The balance is completely off compared from what you would expect if being badly served were a stronger motivator than being well served – people post interesting, useful, and frequently positive information about the places they have stayed. I cannot for the life of me work out why. Lots of American users and a different cultural attitude to praise and blame? Maybe.

It just goes to show, you can’t be too careful.

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