UK: Michael Heseltine - political managers - Public purse needs private values.

UK: Michael Heseltine - political managers - Public purse needs private values. - Michael Heseltine - political managers - Public purse needs private values. Many ministers and civil servants still have a vested interest in a continuing lack of effective

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Michael Heseltine - political managers - Public purse needs private values. Many ministers and civil servants still have a vested interest in a continuing lack of effective scrutiny as private sector disciplines are belatedly adopted.

Ministers preside over government departments; they rarely manage them. Few have managerial experience. The culture of British politics encourages the distinction between political responsibility, on the one hand, to lay down policy and the official responsibility, on the other, to execute it. There are few prizes for effective administration. There are no yardsticks by which to compare the administration of one department with another. You are very much on your own.

Ministerial reputations are made at the despatch box, on television, by a capacity to articulate and deliver great policy and to weather the buffeting of events. So does all this matter? Yes, hugely. Few aspects of our industrial and commercial life are not influenced or open to influence by government. It follows that, round every corner of the corridors of power, officials can affect our performance as a trading nation.

Governments self-evidently are huge purchasers. The skill with which they do so, the quality judgments upon which they insist, the standards they set, ripple out into the corners of the economy. Interestingly, two of our most successful industries, defence and pharmaceuticals, are two over which government, as regulator and customer, exercises the tightest controls.

Think of the economic benefits over decades if government had brought the same vigour to bear on the product of the education system as opposed to the sterile debate about cuts or local government freedom. Disciplines are now being brought to bear, but too slowly and too late.

Management is not just about the big headlines, however. In the day of repeated incremental improvement, every little helps.

Private sector companies cannot tolerate for long the uninspected corner. Better management techniques, such as bench-marking, and the need for acceptable rates of return, all lead the eye and the enquiring mind to every part of the business.

Not so a government department. I always asked for organograms. They never existed. Once produced, the analysis began. Who answers to whom? How many layers of management? How many bottoms on how many seats? The culture of hot-desking had yet to arrive.

What, actually, are people doing? 'Housing policy,' would come the reply. Meaningless, of course. What policy? Who authorised it, and when? And to what disciplines and objectives?

The questions are obvious but, until the tasks and costs are defined, the juggernaut can roll happily along. This is more a criticism of ministers than of civil servants, although both have a vested interest in a continuing lack of effective scrutiny.

One of the last battles in which I was engaged was to persuade my colleagues in government to design and publish the performance indicators for all the quangos for which they were responsible. There was nothing here that the Audit Commission which Tom King and I established in 1982 had not long since imposed on local government. Every municipal service is now costed and compared actively and the results published. Whitehall was fiercely resistant to consuming its own medicine. But finally colleagues agreed. The target-setting was indicative in practice of the problem. Having lost the battle against setting targets, the depressing next step revealed the lack of will and ambition in the targets were set at lower levels than results already achieved. But why set ambitious targets if you can get away with less challenging ones? What minister cannot anticipate that the only media interest would focus on targets missed? The culture is to play safe. In the private sector a managing director would insist on information, appraisal, and improvement. Finance directors would question the figures. In the public sector no such creative tension exists.

The public sector is interested in industry and commerce only where public money or regulation is involved. The culture is to keep the books straight, record events and be prepared for the retrospective inquiry when things go wrong. What a culture for an enterprise economy.

It doesn't need to be like that. Let me give one example: in 1992 London Fashion Week was a pale competitor to Paris, Milan and New York. The industry itself was sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry, although you could have been forgiven for not noticing it. We were asked for a small supporting grant, but money wasn't the problem. It was leadership, drive and flair that was missing.

Richard Needham suggested Clinton Silver, the recently retired joint managing director of Marks & Spencer. He threw himself into the task. Princess Diana was persuaded to draw the press and fashion buyers to an opening party at Lancaster House. By 1995, the event drew 987 buyers and 254 journalists; this year it drew 2,073 buyers and 867 people from the media.

Virtually no public money, just an effective partnership between the public and private sectors based on quality and drive. Few British industries get that support. Few government departments are organised to provide it. Few ministers understand the need for it.

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