Keeping the faith, by Ann Rossiter

22 Sep 05
Can you only feel the public service ethos if you are employed by the public sector? Of course not, says Ann Rossiter. It all depends on the values of the service provider

23 September 2005

Can you only feel the public service ethos if you are employed by the public sector? Of course not, says Ann Rossiter. It all depends on the values of the service provider

The public and private sectors are often talked about as if they are different worlds, animated by different forces and characterised by different values. Those who believe this are also likely to believe that using the private sector to provide public services can damage the special ethos that characterises the public sector.

But there is limited evidence of this kind of fundamental difference. Many of the assumptions critics make about the private sector are naive or even wrong. There are grounds for cautious management of private sector provision of public services, but the effects of the profit motive on the behaviour of the staff in these companies are likely to be much more subtle and much less significant than critics suggest. 

The public service ethos is real and valuable, but the suggestion that the values it represents can be found only in publicly owned organisations is contradicted when the motivations of private sector staff are understood. Our primary objective should be to inculcate these values in all staff providing services to the public.

For a start, it is something of a myth that there is a clear divide between the public sector and the private sector, which is now being eroded. Parts of the public services have always been provided by private sector means. For example, GP practices are in effect small business partnerships. Everything from building services to refuse collection has usually been provided to government by private sector organisations. These services are not traditionally seen as motivated by selfish rather than altruistic goals.

However, it is true that private sector involvement in public service delivery has grown rapidly in recent years. This does make the question of how the public sector ethos can be retained increasingly significant.

Definitions of this ethos are many and varied. The Commons' public administration select committee (PASC) has said that it is characterised by the principles of openness, accountability, quality and reliability. In Managing people in the public services, David Farnham and Sylvia Horton argue that it encapsulates the principles of political neutrality, loyalty, probity, honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, incorruptibility and serving the public interest. Meanwhile John Rouse, writing in Public Management in Britain, lists equity, fairness, community, citizenship, justice and democracy as distinctive public service values. Central to the majority of these is a requirement of universalism – to serve all citizens fairly and equitably.

So is working in the private sector essentially inimical to these values? Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, has said that the  ultimate purpose of private sector jobs will always be the bottom line. In one sense that is true, but only in a very limited way.

For most people, irrespective of where they work, self-respect comes from doing a job well and from winning the esteem of their colleagues and friends. Doing a job well might mean serving customers or clients well or it might involve the profound satisfaction of craftsmanship or the production of goods. These drivers are likely to be as strong for private sector workers as for public service workers.

This is borne out by the academic research. When Pippa Norris from Harvard University compared the motivations of staff working in both the public and private services across a range of countries, she found that there was very little to distinguish them. There were minor differences – private sector workers had a greater sense of autonomy while public sector workers had a stronger sense of fulfilling a useful role in society. There was very little difference in terms of job satisfaction.

So when Barber says that the public service ethos shows that we can be motivated by higher values than simply the pursuit of profit, he is being naive. Most employees are motivated by higher values, irrespective of the objectives of their company. As Tony Wright, chair of the PASC, has said, it is not true that people who work in the public services are more altruistic, kinder or nicer than people who work in the private sector.

After all, if this were the case, society would be clearly and permanently divided between two types of individual – utilitarian and altruistic. In fact, people are a combination of the two, regardless of which sector they work in.

This is an important factor when thinking about the public sector ethos. We need to be clear about the difference between the factors that motivate individuals in their day-to-day work and organisational values. Adair (now Lord) Turner, the former director of the CBI, referred to these as 'intrinsic' rather than commercial motivations.

In other words, we need to distinguish clearly between what can be characterised as the private motivations of a workforce, whether that be in the private or public sector, and the ethos of an organisation and the way that manifests itself in the behaviour of the organisation's workers.

Here again the differences between the public and the private sectors can be overstated. The idea that private sector companies will place their staff under constant pressure to maximise profits is a misunderstanding, and assumes that companies are not aware that pride in their work and concerns about ethics and reputation are important considerations for their workforce. Private sector companies do seek to maximise profits. But this doesn't mean that that is the message they send to staff. Rather they will attempt to persuade their staff that 'the customer is always right' or that 'the customer comes first'.

However, there are clearly ways in which the profit motive can have a negative impact on the values embodied in a public service ethos. First, private companies involved in delivering public services must ensure their staff are insulated from the profit motive. This means they must not simply reward good service by staff, but also ensure that extra effort made by staff is not taken as profit.

Critics like Polly Toynbee have correctly identified a second type of concern regarding the involvement of the private sector in the provision of public services. In her book Hard work, she shows that many of those doing manual work in the public sector are employed by companies that treat them as disposable labour, making it difficult for them to do their jobs with pride and with a proper concern for the public they serve.

The imperative in both these cases is that private sector companies working in public services have a duty to inculcate the values of public service into their staff. The drive to do this would be significantly helped by the development of a public service code, such as that proposed by the PASC.  Any organisation involved in the provision of public services should be required to sign up to it, to train their staff in it and, perhaps most importantly, to ensure that it is manifest in their internal management processes, including incentive structures. 

Accepting that this ethos can apply to workers in the private sector as well as to those in the public sector does mark a shift in seeing the ethos more in terms of product than of process. In other words, it places more emphasis on the outcomes for service users than on the processes involved.

This concept has had its critics, but outcomes are important. For those at the receiving end of public services, they are the only things that matter. Public services delivered through traditional public sector organisations, which have focused more on the right way of doing things rather than the results they achieve, have consistently failed to deliver equitable outcomes for public service users. It is still the case that the more disadvantaged the service user, the worse the service they are likely to receive – be that health care or education. This is not, and should not, be acceptable.

A greater emphasis on outcomes and putting the user first might have traditionally been seen as private sector behaviour, motivated by profit, but we should realise that it is just such an approach that will achieve the delivery of high-quality public services to the many, rather than the few. Rather than being concerned that this marks a move from a collectivist approach to an individualistic one, we should be concerned instead about how effectively our public services currently meet the needs of each and every individual. At the moment, our public services are failing what is perhaps the most important test – that of universalism.

There are important differences between the public and the private sector and these do have implications for public service delivery. However, the evidence is clear – it is a myth that only public service workers and organisations can uphold the ethos of public service. Rather than worrying about this being undermined, we should worry instead about the fact that our public services are failing to treat all public service users fairly and equitably. Importing a 'private sector' approach – one that emphasises customer satisfaction, personalisation and quality outcomes – will not critically undermine the altruistic sense of purpose of public sector staff, but instead ensure they take into account the needs of every service user.

Ann Rossiter is director of the Social Market Foundation