Vouchers and the Provision of Public Services

John Ashworth (University of Durham, UK)

International Journal of Public Sector Management

ISSN: 0951-3558

Article publication date: 1 December 2001




Ashworth, J. (2001), "Vouchers and the Provision of Public Services", International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 14 No. 7, pp. 585-587. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijpsm.2001.14.7.585.1



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited

This text, which comes initially out of a conference of October 1998 and so, despite its publication date, on the whole reflects the position as of late 1998, stems from a desire on the part of the authors to comprehensively consider vouchers and fill a gap in the literature, whereby the only consideration, if at all, was of school vouchers. Overall, the text fulfils its goal in an excellent and comprehensive manner. It considers vouchers in the widest definitions possible and so extends the debate into areas that are usually omitted when one thinks of vouchers in the narrow sense. For example, the final chapter by Posner et al. finds ten areas where vouchers are in use in the USA – child care, criminal justice, education, employment and training, environmental protection, general assistance, health care, housing, nutrition and transportation. They also comprehensively identify intergovernmental initiatives, funded by federal and state governments and implemented by a diverse range of entities to grass‐roots innovations launched from local governments. Indeed, the book would be worthwhile for the appendix for this final chapter alone with its table of the various programmes. The fact that there is so much more can be viewed as a strict bonus.

The text is laid out such that there are three sections – framework, practice, and design. These create a sandwich where the bread is provided in the framework (chapters by Steuerle, “Common issues for voucher programs”; Bradford and Shaviro, “The economics of vouchers”; and Loomis, “The politics of vouchers”) and design (chapters by Lerman and Steuerle, “Structured choice versus fragmented choice: bundling of vouchers”; and Posner et al., “A survey of voucher use: variations and common elements”). A reader who wanted an interesting and sensible overview of the issues involved could read these five chapters and “dip into” the other chapters depending on his or her areas of interest. These chapters are comprehensive and alone fulfil a useful purpose in giving a review of the “art” of vouchers and provide an over‐arching framework. The general theme is summarised by Steuerle, “While vouchers work well under the right circumstances, much attention must be given to their market conditions and structural design”.

The chapter by Bradford and Shaviro is particularly helpful for providing some analysis in the form of diagrams that is often missing in the discussions of vouchers which take place in a vacuum of assumed knowledge; a point emphasised by Loomis in his chapter, where he notes that different voucher programs receive smooth treatment or a bumpy ride depending on the issues involved despite clearly common themes. It is also worthy of note that at no time is the book a sterile economics text divorced from the reality of implementation. Such a reader would still gain the message of the text and useful insights into the philosophy and coverage. However, it is also fair to say that such a reader would miss the wealth of detail that is contained in the “filling” provided by experts in each of the areas. Further, they would miss insights where there are internal (minor) disagreements between the authors as to the exact nature of the vouchers; all of which adds to the richness of the text and illustrates the nature of the debate. As Sawhill and Smith, in one of the chapters, state, “The devil is in the detail. Vouchers can be designed to accomplish almost any purpose. The debate has too often pitted those who believe in markets against those who believe in a stronger government role. But precisely because they are publicly funded, vouchers will always come with public strings attached. The question is how well the strings are designed to accomplish the various purposes.”

The filling chapters cover the complete spectra of areas and from different standpoints: “Food stamp program” (Moffit); “Housing” (Peterson); “Child care” (Besharov and Samari); “Training programs” (Barnow); “Elementary and secondary education” (Sawhill and Smith); “Higher education” (Hauptman); “Legal and constitution issues” (McConnell); “Legal problems with the public funding of religious schools” (Mincberg and Shaffer); “Medicare vouchers” (Reischauer); and “Health care under 65” (Bilheimer). As can be seen from the chapter headings, some of these are very US‐centric, such as the legal issues and particularly the religious schools issue. Further, the health‐care chapters certainly take the vouchers dimension almost as far as it can go without completely straining credibility.

There are also chapters by Priemus on “Housing” and Bishop on “Privatising education”, which provide comparisons with other countries. In many ways, it is a pity that these chapters were not repeated for more areas or that each of the other chapters had not contained a section on other countries. However, this is a minor quibble and it is more a reflection on the nature of vouchers that the issue’s universality comes only in the areas of education and housing and to compare it with other countries in the other areas may well be less interesting, though the issue of food might have been worth exploring. In the end, it is clear why a great deal of the debate about vouchers has been on education and particularly the secondary schools. The Hauptmann chapter is particularly useful in illuminating this by the clear insight, repeated elsewhere in the text, that vouchers are easiest to introduce and have less opposition where there is a market; hence the ease of use at higher education level and the greater opposition with “free” education at other levels. The debates of these chapters will be of considerable use and interest to UK readers, who may well see why issues, which are trivial to Americans with respect to Higher Education, are exercising UK citizens so much. Hauptmann summarises these issues neatly. “Vouchers are likely to work better when a market already exists for the designated good or service. The concept of vouchers seems generally incompatible with a non‐market situation” and “Vouchers work best when the program design provides incentives consistent with policy goals and social norms.” One minor quibble here is the surprise that, in the discussion of education, none of the writers chose to refer to the other set of collected works on resources, Does Money Matter? The Effects of School Resources on Student Achievement and Adult Success, edited by G. Burtless, though nearly all of the other major work in the area was referenced.

Overall, this is a splendid text which will certainly educate all those who read it.

Related articles