UK: MICHAEL HESELTINE - POLITICAL MANAGERS - IT IS TIME TO DO THE UNTHINKABLE/The public sector has come in ... - MICHAEL HESELTINE - POLITICAL MANAGERS - IT IS TIME TO DO THE UNTHINKABLE/The public sector has come in for some unfounded criticism It ofte

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

MICHAEL HESELTINE - POLITICAL MANAGERS - IT IS TIME TO DO THE UNTHINKABLE/The public sector has come in for some unfounded criticism It often faces this without complaint, but there are some faults that can no longer be ignored.

When the prime minister bemoaned the 'can't do' attitude of public servants recently, while his deputy praised their contribution to national life, even the lowliest journalists sensed a row. Labour spin doctors worked overtime.

Those who wrestled with the problem of change when the last government did it, rather than talked about it, will remember criticism from the opposition to every reform we initiated. Rather than respond similarly now that roles are reversed, I will look at where public service reform now stands.

Those who know the UK public sector find much to praise and criticise.

On the plus side, it is loyal to governments of whatever colour, and has no tradition of corruption. However, I fear the recent politicisation of the Government Information Service will disappoint civil servants when they see press appointees rose-tint the facts.

The Civil Service also never flinches at mind-boggling tasks. It faces criticism, much of it unfounded, without complaint. Most importantly, it has many dedicated, talented people for whom the word 'vocation' means something. The armed forces and the emergency, education and health services have many unsung heroes and a great deal that is excellent. However, there is debit column.

Efficient the public services are very often not. Organisations as secretive and jealous of their roles as local and national government are hard to make accountable in terms recognisable to the private sector. Their rules and precedent-based culture can make them unresponsive. They have no conception of time equalling money. They know that when things go wrong, Parliament expects every detail to be recorded.

Tribal and departmental loyalties run so deep that turf fights in Whitehall corridors and town halls absorb far too much energy.

And then there are the public sector unions who have resisted just about everything over the past 20 years, that is since governments have insisted upon introducing modern management to the public services.

With the Government having chosen, until recently, to live within inherited budgets, you would think that reforms would be continuing apace. That was the impression given until the prime minister blew the whistle on his own government.

The impression should have been the reality. Gordon Brown's inheritance from Ken Clarke of the fast-rising revenues that come with economic buoyancy allowed the Government to do better than merely talk a good game so far as cost and value were concerned. The money to afford the initial costs of change was there. But the recent reshuffle showed that the Government lacks people who can run the proverbial whelk stall. Evidence of management slackness grows daily. The computer farce at the Passport Office, the half-hearted effort to involve the private sector in the management and funding of slow learners like London Underground and The Benefits and Contributions Agencies, the half-measures at the National Air Traffic Service and British Nuclear Fuels, the collapse of market testing of local authority and civil service-delivered services, the dilution of opportunities for competition against the likes of Milk Marque, the abandonment of the NHS internal market and the creation of a queue to get into the queue to hide the growing crises in the Health Service illustrate the extent to which the resistance to change referred to by Mr Blair is prevailing over the ministerial will - Mr Prescott's in particular.

Watch out for more blame spreading whenever the expectations raised by too easily given promises are not met. Observe the return to growth of the public sector payroll, not just in education and front-line healthcare where there is a case for it, but in local government and the civil service where there is not.

The events that will unfold are predictable. The Government, having missed the chance of reform inherited from its predecessor, will see ministers seeking savings during some economic slowdown only to be told that they would only worsen the short-term position.

The solutions are obvious - competition and deregulation. This potent combination has worked wonderfully for the nation's and the consumer's benefit in recent years - consider the explosion of telecommunications services and the corresponding fall in prices. Would a DTI-chaperoned GPO have managed the same?

But this shows the essential contradiction in the Government's position.

Whereas its predecessor sought for the consumer and taxpayer the benefits of competition irrespective of who provided the service, this government applies such discipline only to the private sector. With such a high proportion of party-financing and unionised labour now contained in the public sector, it is easy to imagine the pressure upon ministers to let the taxpayer take the strain, but it is not good government.

Sooner or later, good government requires ministers not just to think the unthinkable, as Mr Blair likes to say, but to do the unthinkable.

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