UK: CUTTING FRESH PATHS AT THE DOT. - As the financing of transport infrastructure by the private sector becomes a reality the DoT will have to adapt to new structures.

by Patrick Brown.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As the financing of transport infrastructure by the private sector becomes a reality the DoT will have to adapt to new structures.

Recent years have seen a transformation in the transport market in this country. In 1980 many of the players, and much of the scenery, would have been recognisable to a visitor from 1970, 1960 or even 1950: a large nationalised sector covering railways, road haulage, buses, airlines, airports, ports, hotels and ferries; tightly regulated bus services, both local and long distance; tightly regulated air services in Europe; and a presumption that government was the only conceivable provider of transport infrastructure.

As a result of government policies, much of this has already changed, and more change is on the way. British Airways, BAA, British Rail's manufacturing facilities, hotels and ferries, the National Freight Corporation, the National Bus Company, previously nationalised ports and many other businesses are now in the private sector. Privatisation of the trust ports is under way, as is the demerger of British Rail, franchising of railway services and the sale of many railway businesses. Outside London, bus services are deregulated and largely in private hands, and within the capital, London Transport's bus operations are about to be privatised. Air services within the EU have been liberalised. With the Channel Tunnel, the Dartford Thurrock Bridge and the second Severn crossing the financing of transport infrastructure by the private sector is becoming a reality.

What do these changes mean for the Department of Transport and its management? I single out four key areas.

First, there are new skills. For the staff who work in the Whitehall policy group, new challenges abound. Some tasks wind down: dealing with nationalised industry finance, for example, is less significant than it was - the massive investment programmes of British Airways or BAA no longer figure in the public expenditure round. But other skills, some familiar and some novel, are required on an increasing scale. The organisation of successive privatisations has meant that we are constantly developing new structures, learning from each example how best to protect the interests of taxpayer and consumer in the next. Paving the way for the Channel Tunnel required negotiation of an international treaty and seeing a complex hybrid Bill through Parliament. Negotiations with private companies, their lawyers and merchant bankers, or within the EU to further British interests, demand experience and skills of a high order. The greater the challenges to the accepted way of operating, the more we need bright adaptable people to get the framework right.

Second, there is the need for greater precision. Many of these developments require the DoT - and central and local government generally - to be much more precise about its role and about what it really wants. When local buses were deregulated, local councils found themselves having to specify what socially necessary services they wished to see provided, and having to invite bids. We shall see the same thing with railway franchising: instead of giving a blanket grant to British Rail, the franchising director will invite bids to provide bundles of services to a particular specification. So, as civil servants, we act less and less as the sponsors of a monopoly supplier, and more and more as the purchasers of a service: specifying, procuring, and monitoring the performance of contractors.

The same principles will increasingly apply to the executive activities of the DoT.

Third, service delivery. Like other government departments - and we were the first in the field - we have set up executive agencies to provide a sharper focus on the delivery of services to the public. The proportion of our staff now working in agencies is 60%: the total will rise to 80% in April 1994 when three new agencies (Highways, Coastguards and Marine Safety) are established. The Driving Standards Agency (responsible for administering the driving test) and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency have both won the Charter Mark. At the same time, in accordance with government policy, we are asking at regular intervals whether particular tasks need to be done at all, whether they should be privatised, or whether they should be market tested to establish whether there are better-value alternatives to in-house provision. We recently sold our information technology agency; its operation and staff are now in the private sector.

So, like individuals in the private sector, civil servants face the prospect of continuing change. In the past, our staff have operated in a relatively stable structure. The task for management is therefore to help them to understand the changing environment they are working in, and why they are part of - and important contributors to - that change. Above all, senior management now has to provide clear leadership as new structures are put in place.

Fourth, there is, despite all these changes, an important constant. Much of what we do affects individual citizens and their rights. Decisions on whether Jane Smith is fit to drive can affect her ability to earn a living. Decisions on the line of route for a road, or on night flights at an airport, can affect John Brown's house and his family's happiness. So, rightly, we work within a framework of law, and with the possibility that decisions will be subject to appeal or to judicial review. In these areas, there is no simply defined 'bottom line': the task is to ensure that people are fairly treated, and sometimes we have to make a difficult choice between different groups of people. This requires civil servants with impartiality, integrity and humanity. I foresee no change in that requirement.

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