What shall we do with the public sector? – part one

The council-staffed community media project had ordered a new desktop publishing program for one of its Apple Mac computers. The CD arrived but, several weeks later, the software still hadn’t been installed – an expert from the council’s IT department had to come and install it. When the expert finally arrived, he didn’t know anything about Apple Macs so he had to get one of the project’s workers to install the new software while he watched.

The taxpayer had paid for someone with no relevant expertise to fail dismally in an attempt to carry out an unnecessary function because the council was systematically incapable of letting the people on the ground, who knew what they were doing, carry out a simple task that was theoretically ‘in someone else’s department’.

This is an example of the kind of incident that partly informed my decision to work for a social enterprise rather than a local authority, despite the fact that I earn a lot less money now that I would do if I’d stayed in local government.

Processes are (particularly) important for large organisations. Both people using public services and people buying stuff from companies expect (not unreasonably) some consistency of service from service providers working for the same organisation. Part of the way that’s achieved is through everyone in the organisation conforming to some policies and procedures.

It’s a problem in large organisations in general (not just in the public sector) that systems that are theoretically set up to ensure quality and prevent bad things happening can – often through inflexible or misdirected application – ultimately reduce quality and deliver negative consequences that outweigh the bad things they were set up to prevent.

In this case, on top of wasting time and taxpayers’ money, neither member of staff was happy. The IT expert was fulfilling a function he knew to be useless, the project worker was – whether intentionally or not – being told by his employer that he was so untrustworthy that basic upgrades to his work equipment had to be overseen by an unconnected person with no knowledge of what he did or how he did it.

Of course, very few people support this kind of thing. Even much maligned public sector middle managers – who despite their hate figure status are, in my experience, often hard-working and thoughtful people with good ideas – don’t actually support useless processes. The problems tend to come when – working across whole organisations rather than anecdotally – we try to work out which processes are useless and which ones make sure good things happen or bad things don’t happen.

Consultants KPMG have got some ideas about what needs to be done to solve these – and many other – problems in the public sector. Their report, Payment for Success, published in June this year, is basically a blueprint for fullscale marketisation of public services (more analysis of its claims re: productivity will follow in a later post). The new government is apparently quite keen on that idea. The report is an articulate, well argued document that distinguishes between national, local and individual ‘customers’ for public services but the clear overall line being taken is that the way to make public services more efficient is to have a clear split between the buyers and sellers of services, and for all providers to be paid by results.

The aim of this approach in terms of the equivalents of the council with their pointless IT expert is that inefficient providers will go bust and more efficient providers will come along to replace them. Of many questions this raises, three are: ‘to what extent would this approach to public services provide opportunities for social enterprise?’,  ‘to what extent will it actually provide people with what they want from public services?’ and ‘if fullscale marketisation isn’t the answer, what is?’

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “What shall we do with the public sector? – part one

  1. Interestingly as IT professional myself running a social enterprise I’d approached my own council offering help in both aspects. Their IT director had been dismissed following a police investigation.

    This is what happened after:

    http://www.thisisgloucestershire.co.uk/news/misled-163-30k-grant-councillor/article-2414932-detail/article.html

    The consultant had no track record in social enterprise and was the former director of a private healthcare company.

    “Always a high risk strategy” said local Tories.

    This is what has and will happen when a cabal without a public mandate presents as social enterprise.

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  2. What happens locally pales in comparison with the overall experience of taking social enterprise to government.

    I tweeted yesterday – without work, lost family, now with leukemia but mad most of all about dishonesty in #socent

    http://www.guardianpublic.co.uk/2012-games-social-enterprise-roundtable?showAllComments

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  3. beanbagsandbullsh1t

    Well, councillors do have a mandate to help with the set-up of social enterprises but they certainly do need to be held to account for the way they do so.

    You’re certainly right to point out that a growth in organisations calling themselves social enterprise is not necessarily any benefit to anyone.

    Sad to hear that things are going badly.

    I don’t know whether I agree that there’s lots of active dishonesty in social enterprise – as opposed to any other sector.

    But I do think we’ve been going through a period when many people in the social enterprise movement have been over-optimistic about our abilities and unduly credulous about the actions that will follow positive sounding political rhetoric (from all parties).

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  4. Pingback: What shall we do with the public sector? – part two « Beanbags and Bullsh!t

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