Is it all going pear-shaped?

13 Apr 16

A full frontal assault on public service professionals by ministers and Whitehall is hammering morale and weakening public trust

In the 1940s, pilots trying difficult manoeuvres or loops would comment that, whilst trying hard, their efforts were unfortunately going a little pear-shaped. So sorry for colloquialisms or classic English understatement, but it’s telling how often at present I pick up the sentiment that all is not well in the state of Denmark.

So to use some current examples…

I can see the policy argument that whilst education is state-funded, delivery should be from public interest independent institutions (academies), rather than direct public sector managed bodies. But, for many, the manner of execution of this policy additionally centralises education oversight to Whitehall in the name of localism. It’s nonsense! Government is making the hubristic mistake of thinking it will do a better job of managing the system up and down the land. It's born of the Department for Education having little respect for local democracy, institutions, delivery or problem solving. So in the name of decentralisation it centralises. Whitehall will make an awful job of it.

Similarly, DfE and Ofsted are damaging children’s services. The UK – through local government choice, against the direction of funding – is spending more on children’s social services. By international standards we have a low rate of untoward or avoidable child death – although, of course, not all deaths are unavoidable. But through Ofsted, which lacks credibility or independence in the eyes of most professionals in this domain, social workers’ confidence and reputation are being undermined to a damaging degree. The government announces it will raise morale and prestige of the profession, but surreally does not acknowledge that its constant narrative of blame in all cases is the cause of the problem. Regulate and intervene where necessary, yes please. But the incidence of needing improvement and special measures is an error. A county council, for example, was de facto ordered by Whitehall to buy all social workers an iPad costing circa £350k. Is that the job of government, especially when they were not used?

And recent events suggest the public has had enough of this style of spin-more-than-substance politics. As Cicero commented: “When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff.”

Actually, in fairness to the Prime Minister, it does not appear his tax arrangements are “scandalous”. And I neither mind nor care what culture secretary John Whittingdale does behind closed doors. But neither is it "scandalous” for public service leaders and professionals to earn good salaries above that paid to the Prime Minister, and nor is it shocking that there are planned performance consequences of cuts. Politicians court the public with much unfair invective and scapegoating, but don’t like that the public is becoming increasingly cynical about their actions.

My advice is that honest and mature debate fosters honest and mature debate. Clearly, the NHS will need a lot more per capita GDP, and clearly it can save more too. Where is the level-headed discussion of this that acknowledges a developing crisis?

And personally I worry about the Westminster culture – different to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and indeed much of the rest of the world – that public service managers are second best. As strongly as politicians are losing the public, they are losing people who run public services too. Whilst front line staff are rightly praised, our minsters use the words bureaucrats, managers and waste interchangeably. I am not alone is saying that local NHS systems are less well led since Strategic Health Authorities were axed, yes even though they were managers! And be in no doubt that a new model for regional health improvement will be in a desk drawer near you as we speak.

Is there much going well, and things that I could praise? Yes! Are there things we can do better as public service professionals? Yes, definitely. But for once, please tolerate my little rant that reflects what so many of you are telling me; that generally it's all going a bit pear-shaped.


  • Rob Whiteman

    Chief executive of CIPFA since 2013, after leading the UK Border Agency and the Improvement & Development Agency. Previously, he was CEO at Barking and Dagenham council.

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