Putting the public straight

13 Jun 08
DAVID WALKER | Nothing to do with me, squire. That’s the attitude of most public sector employees to the implosion of the Brown government.

Nothing to do with me, squire. That’s the attitude of most public sector employees to the implosion of the Brown government.

Politics, they seem to say, is a nasty, dirty business. But just like a maiden aunt and procreation, they seem to forget that it takes sex — or in this case, politics — to produce the goods.

Brown’s problems don’t spring just from his indecisiveness and ideological confusion. They are also about public service delivery, for which chief executives, finance officers and the rest must take a large share of responsibility.

Labour politicians are chastened but not enough public managers are. If their response is that public services have improved then their principal failure is communication. A theme at the CIPFA annual conference is moving from competence to excellence.

So how do we explain the sour public mood when we have in our hands a sheaf of positive assessments handed down by the regulators, including attestations of excellence?

Public services have got better and, accepting all the qualifications and criticisms of Gershon, are more efficient too. Why doesn’t that register with the public? If citizens said to pollsters ‘we don’t like that Gordon Brown but we have to credit the council/government with improvements’, that would be reasonable. Instead, the condemnation is blanket. Public service managers have failed, it seems, to convince the public of anything much, let alone improvement.

In last week’s Public Finance, Tony Travers of the London School of Economics argued that Labour had lost the white working class because it had concentrated on minorities and Guardian readers (‘Life of Gordon’, May 30). But what about school and health spending, extra police numbers and so on?

The bulk of Labour’s boost to social spending has, necessarily, been targeted at that white working class — and that’s before we consider tax credits, family support and employee rights. The unpalatable fact is that the spending is unappreciated. And some of the responsibility for that must lie with public service professionals.

How many seminars have been convened in recent years to discuss ‘channel management’ or better reporting of what public bodies do? A gulf in public understanding remains. How little, it turns out, the public has absorbed by way of understanding or appreciation.

Some might say the public has quite enough information, thank you, and is now making up its mind that the money absorbed by the public sector has been misapplied and delivered insufficient value. But surely value for money is precisely the territory where managers (and their auditors and regulators) should muck in and argue the toss with the public? Once again, there is plenty of evidence.

Travers proposes radical decentralisation to be the way forward, as if councils were held high in public esteem. They’re not. He admits one reason the public doesn’t appreciate services is that services are complicated, too variable — yet his recipe could fragment and complicate them further.

Some Labour MPs, in an electoral and ideological funk, are saying Labour should turn its back on public services altogether and cut spending in order to cut taxes. To which the only reply is: if the game is tax cutting, let’s vote for a party that really believes in it, the Tories.

There is another way forward, but it will require public sector staff to change the habits of a lifetime by becoming more assertive and less deferential — towards the public.

The Zeitgeist decrees ‘engagement’, extols participation and says the customer is king. But no one adds that these things require effort, discipline and commitment or that customers have obligations as well as rights. Choice and personalisation are all very well, provided they are not recipes for selfishness. In some recent management formulas, the public has become infantilised.

Elected politicians find it hard to say boo to the goose. Labour, especially, has deceived the public and itself by promising Scandinavian public services on US tax levels.

Over to public managers. They can and must be more honest about getting what you pay for, and about the public’s obligations and shortcomings. A principal duty on the public, at this stage in the political cycle, is to play fair, do a bit of homework and think back. And if MPs and councillors won’t say that, public managers should. People should be told to put their brains in gear before they answer pollsters’ questions.

Mounds of evidence point to improvement. Saying that things have got better, if it’s evidence-based, is a professional obligation. Reprimanding the public for forgetting it isn’t a political intervention — it is the bounden duty of a responsible public servant.

David Walker writes for the Guardian. Unjust Rewards, exposing greed and inequality in Britain today (Granta), his new book with Polly Toynbee, is out this summer.

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