Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Mandarins: Move them around a bit?

I've just seen this article by local government minister John Healey, and it raises an interesting - if courageous - point.

Courageous, in that civil service reform is very firmly in 'career graveyard' territory for aspiring politicians. I'm constantly amazed at the number of articles that I read in which the following observations aren't referenced:
  1. Civil servants run the country on a day-to-day basis
  2. Civil service reform (for the better, anyway) is almost impossible in the short term, and those who try it, regret it
  3. Public debate is structured in such a way as to ensure that ministers have few allies when they decide to take civil servants on.
That said, Healey's speech neatly mirrors Hazel Blears observations on career politicians the other day.

One of my regular themes here is the question of what attributes we should hope for in politicians. A similar question should be asked about what attributes we'd like to see in civil servants.

These are interesting times. In the last six weeks, we've seen the case for the Thatcherite model of soft-regulation decisively stamped upon. Hopefully, these are arguments that will gradually cease to trouble us as they are chased out the system over the coming months.

But there is also another important lesson that has been learned more gradually and less noisily: It's this: the public sector and the private sector are very different animals indeed.

As I argued here, we have now seen that the public and private sectors are not that porous and that people can't really switch between one and the other and add value though this cross-fertilisation.

What we've really seen is the private sector take over some parts of the work of the public sector, do whatever is in their contract and not a stroke more, and charge a good deal more than it would have cost to get the rusty old NUPE members to do it for them back in the day.

I think that John Healey seems to recognise this to some extent, in that he's picking up a need for cross-fertilisation between different parts of public administration rather than simply joining in the refrain that we should either be copying the private sector or handing over the work of government to it:
Those who sit in senior positions within departments must be able to manage complex delivery chains which reach from ministerial offices in London to the front doors of people in Rotherham and Rotherhithe and Rotherley Down... way of speeding up the pace of change would be to see no civil servant rising beyond grade three – two levels below permanent secretary – without being able to demonstrate some significant delivery and operational management experience.

This could be in local government or in the commercial world or in the third sector, NHS, education, jobs and training fields.

The point is that having done so, they will better understand how central policy plays out in practice. And they will have a deeper appreciation of the way frontline staff think, operate and serve the public.

It would also engender a much richer exchange between Whitehall officials and their colleagues across the nation’s public service, helping by extension, to remove the binary culture of them and us that is too-often still apparent.

The need for people to switch between policy and delivery is a serious one. The need to improve the quality of local government management is even more important. One thing though: The leak of good public administration skills into the private sector is also a serious one. Civil servants can do less and earn more by going over to the private sector and helping them wring deals out of their former employers at ridiculously favourable terms.

The answer to this isn't to forbid civil servants from moving into the private sector - it is in the recognition that it is possible for the public sector to do its work at least as well - if not better - than the management consultants who are currently doing it all - to the letter of their contract and no further.

I still think that the big prize is a move towards the in-and-outer model that I outlined here - and even a version of old-fashioned Boss Politics - you win an election, you run the country for a while. End. Of.

1 comment:

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