Page last updated at 17:52 GMT, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The cones hotline's legacy...

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Westminster sophisticates sneered at it. Comedians were guaranteed a laugh just by mentioning it. The Labour Party could hardly believe its luck.

Traffic jam
Who can motorists turn to now that the hotline has gone?

John Major's "cones hotline" was probably the most ridiculed policy ever to be introduced by a British government.

How the critics hooted at its apparent pettiness and lack of ambition. Could the party that gave us Churchill and Thatcher really have come to this? A telephone line for motorists to moan about road works?

But Mr Major and his modest proposal may be about to have the last laugh.

For although the cones hotline itself is long dead (it was quietly killed off in 1995) its spirit lives on.

And the initiative that spawned it - The Citizen's Charter - has been revealed as the inspiration behind Gordon Brown's latest attempt to reform the public services.

The government has spent the past 11 years wrestling with what should, on the face of it, be the simple task of finding out what people want from public services and then giving it to them.

'Unsung success'

Its latest initiative, the Customer Service Excellence standard, based on the recommendations of former Passport Agency chief Bernard Herdan, aims to involve people in setting targets for local services.

But although it is dressed up in fashionable buzz words, such as "empowerment" and the dreaded "bottom up", it is essentially a refined, less centralised version of the Citizen's Charter.

The debt is acknowledged in the government's response to a recent select committee report, which describes the Citizen's Charter as "something of an unsung success story" with an "important legacy" in shaping the relationship between citizens and public services.

John Major in 1992
Will John Major be having the last laugh?

Not bad for something that was written off in 1991, by the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock, as "a mixture of the belated, the ineffectual, the banal, the vague and the damaging".

The Citizen's Charter was, in fact, the first serious attempt to raise standards in public services by listening to the demands of consumers. It guaranteed waiting times for hospital patients, introducing performance-related league tables and new scope for ordinary citizens to complain (hence the cones hotline).

And despite ridiculing it at every opportunity, New Labour secretly coveted it, embracing its culture of targets and league tables as a way of ensuring the extra money it poured into schools and hospitals was not wasted (something its critics say it has failed to do).

Blue plaques

In 1996, John Prescott said he wanted to go one better than the Citizen's Charter and create a "complainer's charter" - allowing voters to register their protests via their television remote controls or, in the quaint jargon of the time, "on line".

It never happened.

The Charter itself survived until 2000, when the unit in charge of it at the Cabinet Office was replaced by the Service First team, which was then closed down itself a few years later.

Charter Mark
The Charter Mark is being phased out in favour of a new scheme

But the Charter Mark - the blue plaques awarded to organisations for excellence in customer service, without which no leisure centre foyer would be complete, survived until June 2008 when it was finally scrapped in favour of the new Customer Service Excellence programme.

In its response to the public administration committee report, the government seems in awe of Mr Major's modest little policy, expressing the earnest hope that Customer Service Excellence "like Charter Mark before it - upholds and develops the aims of the Citizen's Charter programme".

Before the economy became the government's top priority, the idea of putting citizens in the driving seat of public service reform was Gordon Brown's big idea.

A whole series of measures in last month's Queen's Speech - from the NHS Constitution, which sets out the rights of patients for the first time, to more police accountability - were designed to hand more power and control to the consumers of public services.

Rubbish collection

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have also seized on the idea of citizen empowerment - both claim to be the true party of localism and the sworn enemy of Labour's target culture.

Labour, for its part, admits it was too obsessed with centralising control in its early years in government and did not give enough thought to how the thousands of targets it set from Whitehall would actually be met by hard-pressed teachers, doctors and nurses.

It has promised to repent, claiming the plans contained in its Local Government Empowerment White Paper will finally shift power and influence "away from existing centres of power into the hands of communities and individual citizens".

But 12 years after John Prescott first dreamed of angry citizens firing off complaints from their armchairs before flipping over to Coronation Street, the government is still trying to find an effective way of making people feel they have a say in the way things are run in their local area.

If only they could come up with a simple, easily-understood way for the public to voice their dissatisfaction with local irritations like rubbish collection or road works.

Perhaps some kind of hotline....

Here is a selection of your comments:

The Cones Hotline did not die at all, it is alive and well and called The Highways Agency Information Line, or HAIL. It is based at the National Traffic Control Centre in Birmingham and provides a valuable service to the public in attempting to answer their queries regarding the trunk road network in England.
Mark Dollar, Exeter, UK

New York City, in the US, has had a hotline like this called '311' -- that apparently has been very well received, for the past five or so years.
Stephen, Manchester, United Kingdom

The problem is that the govt want us to "feel they have a say in the way things are run" as opposed to actually having a say.
Steve, Peterborough, UK

The Government is perfectly happy to listen to consumers until the point when the public says something that doesn't match the Government's plans. Then consultation results are quietly dropped in favour of big businesses or large donors.

As proof M'lud I cite the Government's complete disregard of public opposition to the expansion of Heathrow, Stanstead and, in due course Gatwick. I am sure others will be able to add more examples to this list. Consultation? Putting the public in the driving seat? Nonsense. Politicians spend years trying to get into power, and the people at the top expend great effort manoeuvering themselves into positions of power. Why on earth would they want to hand that power over to the public? Let's get real.
Ziggy Arbuthnott, London

The govement should give one email address for anyone to log their concerns/complains about any service. Similar to, for example 999. The email should be like "" so if you live in Swansea you should email to "" and if you do not have the town name then it should still go to the generic mail box. Also you can set up texting to "9999" to log your concern.
Ala'a Shouaib, Swansea

A government allowing us to say what we think of their performance? A government making it easy to complain? A government acting to give the voters what they want? A government unable to fiddle the opinion polls so as to claim they are giving us what we want? Never in a million years! As dead as the cones hotline! After all, this government rues the day it championed the freedom of information act!
CR Woodley , Oxford UK

Great idea but at what cost? Far from streamlining the public sector vast resources are diverted away from delivering the services to measuring a spurious set of criteria and publishing results that are at best inane and at worst misleading. Why bother with this when you could just allow users to do online feed back like all the consumer sites. Whilst this is equally misleading it cost a lot less to the public purse.
Steve , Exeter, Devon.

It's a shame the Government has decided to call it 'Customer Service Excellence'. If we're supposed to be customers, why can't we shop elsewhere? Maybe this is a case for the Monopolies and Mergers Commission...
Mike H, Nottingham, UK

The best hotline is the Ballot Box! It's time to get a few thousand out I think.
Ed Thomas, Cardiff

The British Government as usual gets it wrong. The only way to get things done locally is to have decentralisation (fiscal and otherwise) and therefore local accountability. Labour is instinctively against that kind of thing because it's not in the socialist model beloved by the likes of Brown, Blair and dinosaurs like Prescott - no-one knows better than the Nanny State run from Westminster. They are against greater autonomy because they'd have to give up their cushy jobs interfering and controlling the population.
Richard, Budapest, Hungary

We have a chance to have our say already. Its called an election! It staggers me that both national and local government of any political bias can justify spending money on such things. I want leaders to lead and if I don't like what they are doing I'll vote them out next time. I don't my hard earned tax spent on consulting me on everything. Its their job to make decisions, thats what they are paid for. It also annoys me that people belly ache about local and national government but then don't get off their backsides and vote. If you don't like it do soemthing about it, and if you don't then don't moan about it.
Val, Birmingham

More NuLabour spin, smoke and mirrors. This is the most authoritarian, illiberal and control-obsessed British government that I have EVER known, and the notion that it will "shift power and influence .... into the hands of communities and individual citizens" is nonsense. This government - that has done so much to trample on our freedoms and civil liberties - will NEVER devolve any real power away from itself.
Paul, Fife - put together by the MySociety charity - is surely one of the successors of the cones hotline. You tell it what's wrong with services in your road - like street lights or potholes - and it e-mails your local council for you. This has been put together without government interference and it's small projects like this that should be lauded by government, not trampled on.
Michael Parker, Cambridge

It would be a help if we could sue governments for failing to deliver on electoral offer statements - that really would be a citizen's charter to provide feedback whilst government was still in power to correct their omissions! paul j. weighell, purley, england

I used to fill in forms for my local council asking us, the public, to express our views similar to the proposal set out above. On several issues we gave our opinions but the council overrode the vast majority and implemented what they thought best. If local government already operate this sort of scheme and it is ignored then what chance does it have in the realms of 'ivory towers' who tell us what we want wether we do or not.
Mr.D.Hill, Paignton,England

We need a written constitution, one that will bring bureaucratic, planning, administrative and political malfeasance to book by imprisonment, fines and immediate loss of office and pension rights. An elected House of Lords, and a mechanism of plebiscite, as they have in California where incompetent administrations are forcibly removed by popular demand would be a start.
Mike Russell, Exeter, UK


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