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For the greater good, by Barry Quirk

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14 October 2005

Becoming more efficient isn't an end in itself for local authorities. By improving the way they do things, councils can concentrate more on their main job – managing resources and services in the public interest

'Be more efficient' is currently the number one item on local government's 'to do' list. And that's where I come in. As the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's 'efficiency champion', I am desperately keen for councils to do things better. But we must never lose sight of the fact that the reason we are trying to be more efficient is to expand our purposes. So what are these purposes?

The answer is simple. Ultimately, councils are in the 'local public interest' business. That's why we are central to developing cohesion in communities that can be so easily torn apart by fear, insecurity and terrorism.

Local public service is not just a job: it's an attitude that puts the concerns of a wider public before the concerns of special interest groups. This doesn't imply that public servants ought to be blind to the latter. They need to know about the needs of individuals, of groups of individuals and of the public at large.

The point is that when we are designing and delivering services, questions about the overall public interest dominate our thinking. Should this field be converted to a housing development? Should we use our £1m discretionary spend on social care for elderly people or on improvements to a leisure centre? And which community group merits greater use of the community centre that has been built in the most deprived part of town?

Managing in the public interest doesn't mean that services to everyone take priority over services to small numbers of people. The public interest can be advanced by providing services to groups of very needy individuals or by dealing with the problems caused by a very small group of individuals.

Indeed, public interest concerns prompt us to care for those on the margin, those in most need — not out of naive altruism but out of a sense of solidarity and mutual interdependence. We all want to help a minority today because we might be in a minority tomorrow or because some individuals need protection from others (in their family or in their neighbourhood). More specifically, whether we are providing child protection services, tackling antisocial behaviour or inspecting restaurants, the major test we adopt is: 'Are we acting in the public interest?'

In the modern consumer world, our starting position is that everyone wants naturally to advance their own interests and, if we are honest, this works fine in market economies. Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' of market exchange mechanism ensures that by attending to our own interests the overall economy grows and meets needs and demands as they emerge and change.

But not all of life is encompassed in market exchange. And the public interest (for everyone and over the long term) is not always guaranteed by enabling unbridled self interest.

We know that everyday social life involves us in discovering or building common cause with others. And building common cause requires us to suppress naked self-interest for a greater good — one that is shared between a majority or by everyone.

What is more, the ties that bind us to each other are not simply through what we buy and sell to each other. We are connected to others through shared histories of experience and meaning and we share journeys into the future by the fact of living with and near each other.

Local government is not simply an agent of service delivery — a local outpost of centrally designed public services. It is a vehicle for self-governance — a local forum to debate and reconcile local differences of opinion, attitude and interest. That is why public management is so important at the local level. It requires much more than the skills needed to deliver operational service excellence. Local government managers need to appreciate how to manage in the public interest, how to handle competing claims for resources, how to mediate and reconcile differences of interest and ambition locally, and how to support dialogue, dissent and democracy across communities and within the council.

That is why I have placed our role of managing in the public interest at the centre of this year's conference of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers. We are working for the greater good in our communities. Of course, we need to deliver efficient and effective services. And, of course, as managers we need to ensure fairness and justice in the allocation of goods and services locally.

But when Solace gathers in Edinburgh, the place where Adam Smith died, local government chief executives throughout the UK need to place concerns about public interest at the heart of our work ethic. After all, public interest concerns are the DNA of our organisations — they pre-figure the very character and composition of our work as councils in our local communities.

Barry Quirk is the chief executive of the London Borough of Lewisham and president of Solace. The society's conference takes place on October 16–18

PFoct2005

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