Most private sector managers recognise, at least in principle, the important work to be done in the public sector. But few consider devoting much of their career to it. A move across is interpreted by hard-bitten business leaders as an admission of defeat or failure. As David Smith asks on page 26, why would any sane businessman, with the prospect of richer rewards in the private sector, take on a public sector role? Are these the kind of jobs that should carry the health warning: Only masochists should apply?
As chairman of the Post Office, Neville Bain is surrounded by scepticism.
The former Coats Viyella chief executive aims to create great commercial success at the organisation and is confronted by government resistance on one side and fierce competition on the other. Cynics in both camps doubt his chances of success.
Instead moves from private to public sector should be supported. At the part-time policy level, posts consistently attract successful business leaders. Look how easily the Government has co-opted great swathes of the business community. Barclays Bank's Martin Taylor and Prudential's Sir Peter Davis each run one of the Government's 75 task forces. With luck and encouragement this could lead to the start of greater movement between the two worlds.
Prejudice is not confined to the private sector. On the other side of the fence public sector figures have traditionally regarded themselves as following a superior calling. They look down on commercial work as a grubby occupation short on integrity and intellectual challenges.
Yet a move into the world of profit does not carry with it the same stigma as a switch in the other direction. The financial rewards attached to senior boardroom posts bring with them a certain status. Who could feel pity for Sir Peter Middleton, who joined BZW on stepping down as permanent secretary to the Treasury, or Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, who has collected a string of appointments at UniChem, British American Tobacco, Foreign & Colonial Investment Trust and Daiwa?
The rigid divisions are slowly breaking down as the two sides start to accept that they do not operate in a vacuum. Living with the political realities and relentless attention attached to senior public sector jobs could benefit many of Britain's top business managers; and the discipline of delivering a profit in a competitive market could usefully be transferred the other way. In America and France talented individuals already glide from one side of the fence to the other. Sadly when people move from one sector to another in Britain, they tend to do it at the end of their careers.
How much more valuable it would be if talented individuals could transfer between sectors when they had time to go back again.