From the TUC

Can the public sector learn from the private?

02 Nov 2009, by in Politics, Public services

Will Hutton’s sterling defence of the public sector (nicely extended by Rachael at Next Left and Richard at Tax Research UK) was followed this morning by the FT’s lead story that the Conservatives plan to bring in “corporate big hitters” … “to shake up departmental spending and transform the civil service culture.”

They would not be full time, but work two or three days a month. The Conservatives are also worried that ministers might be corrupted by spending too much time with their departments. The FT further reports that Francis Maude:

is weighing plans for ministers to split their time between a central “beehive” unit and their departments, to reduce the risk of their being overly influenced by officials, although no final decision has been made.”

It would be entertaining to speculate who will be the workers and who will be the drones in this beehive, but I was rather more struck by the FT’s detailed discussion of the difficulties of getting anyone to do this on the money on offer.

Not so long ago we were listening to senior Conservatives complaining that senior people in the public sector are paid far too much, and that in future anyone earning more than the Prime Minister would require individual sign-off from the Chancellor.

But according to the FT:

No senior business person would fill the non-executive posts on departmental boards – central to the Tories’ proposed public sector reforms – for the money on offer or the intrinsic rewards of the job itself, leading recruitment consultants told the Financial Times.

So one wonders why they would want to do it? It seems that altruism is the only motive that anyone can cite.

I am sure there are skills in the private sector that can be useful in the public sector, and vice versa. I have met some ex-private sector people now working in the public sector who are making a tremendous contribution putting the skills they have learnt into doing something motivated by the public sector ethos. But I have also heard horror stories of ex-private sector managers completely failing  to understand the much more complex work of the public sector.

But Conservative plans to introduce business people and keep their ministers away from the corrupting influence of the civil service is worrying. It radiates a basic hostility to the public sector, and suggests that the undermining of the traditional model of civil service supported government, already hit by Tony Blair’s excessive reliance on his sofa, will continue.

One Response to Can the public sector learn from the private?

  1. Geraint Day
    Nov 7th 2009, 12:18 am

    Worrying indeed. And why would should it be assumed that those who could be brought in would know any more about running the Civil Service than civil servants would know about running business? But then others have pointed out similar flaws in this sort of approach:

    “Merchants and master manufacturers … by their wealth draw to themselves the greatest share of the public consideration … As their thoughts, however, are commonly exercised rather about the interest of their own particular branch of business than about that of society, their judgment, even when given with the greatest candour … is much more to be depended upon with regard to the former of these two objects, than with regard to the latter.”

    [Adam Smith, ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations’, Harriman House, Petersfield, 2007 (originally published in 1776), page 162.]