What is wrong with the British Public Sector?

What is wrong with the public sector?

Most people feel that the public sector is in crisis, with low staff morale, poor service delivery and too much bureaucracy. The question is can anything be done to improve things and what is the cause of the vast array of problems it faces?

The Public Sector used to be an eccentric collection of largely autonomous departments of State and Local Government. It was efficient and whilst Salaries were low compared to similar posts in the private sector, the work carried a pension which was seen by staff as giving long-term security. people were also loyal to the concept of public service. Much of the Public Sector from the 1940s to the 1980s reflected the values of the post-war settlement. The Public Sector was financed by taxation for the benefit of everyone. Its basic values therefore would have tilted towards equality, fairness plus accountability, not to a bureaucratic elite but to elected representatives on Boards and committees. The public sector, therefore, tilted away from principles of elitism in favour of functionalism that delivered services to the public. This all started to change with the arrival in the 1980s of a growing belief that the model was inefficient because what went on was largely immeasurable. It coincided of course with the development of data. and growing faith in the ability of free market principles of unfairness, inequality and particularly managerial elitism, to deliver better measured and managed services to the public, but at what cost to the staff? Let us explore what has happened from Prime Ministers Major to Johnson via Blair and Brown.

A characteristic of the old public sector, therefore, particularly in local authorities was that it tended to have hierarchies with few levels within its hierarchies, between those at the top and those at the ‘delivery end’. The system worked because everyone knew their role within departments and they had clearly defined professional boundaries, within which they operated autonomously. They had time to become experts at what they did. As they were relatively flat hierarchies, career progression was the exception rather than the expectation. Those who did ‘get on’ usually did so on the basis they were knowledgeable and experienced, generally respected, and likeable. All very simple.

Since then, however, there have been significant developments changing the culture and nature of the public sector. These changes are based on a belief that the public sector required free-market principles to make it efficient. It has gone from being a simple collection of diverse but skilful departments, staffed by experienced professionals, into a data, training obsessed, and micromanaged behemoth that no longer serves the needs of those who work in it or those who rely on it and of course pay for it..

So, what has gone wrong? When the public sector was being expanded or in some instances ‘nationalised’ after the Second World War the only organisational model in existence was the industrial business model. The industrial business model, based as it is on capitalist principles has elitism and unfairness characterised by top-down control of workers. However, the layers of management and ancillary departments support whatever is the core business activity of the organisation.

Any manufacturing firm may need Human Resources, training, and finance departments, or it can buy these in from elsewhere. All these ancillary roles create costs but must not impede key business. They must continue to allow control of business risk from the Board of Directors at the top, through managers to ensure the prosperity of the firm. Altogether the aim is efficiency, making a successful firm that makes a profit, can support its ancillary departments, take risks, and not spectacularly fail.

In the earliest iteration of the public sector (I am excluding the military which has structures requiring different command and control needs) the application of this industrial model, whilst ‘top down’ was reasonably flat and lightly managed. Profit wasn’t a preoccupation. It didn’t need to be. Workers were classified by their role for example practitioner or senior practitioner of this or that department, and a Chief Officer with maybe a couple of ranks in between, maybe a deputy to the Chief Officer. All colleagues would know the purpose of the department they worked in and would gain decades of experience in, for example, protecting children, managing offenders, providing housing, maintaining highways or upkeeping Parks and Gardens. From the 1940s until the end of the twentieth century this model worked reasonably well but even back then did and still does have difficulties that have been used by a newly created public sector elite to define its failures today.

First among the old public sectors difficulties was that the model had no inbuilt ‘check’ on inefficiency, such as loss-making, or going bankrupt as is the case in the private sector. But given the public service values back then this was less of an issue. Wages were typically lower than in the private sector. In the past, the public sector and private sectors were recognised as different, with very different sets of values.

Once the public sector was uncoupled from its quaint ideas of public service or ‘vocation’ the new commercial ethos introduced bit by bit by Governments from the late 1980s onwards, has spawned not efficiency but bureaucracy and oppressive management. The public sector and its workers were never inefficient enough to justify the imposition of commercial principles. But that didn’t stop the trend from gaining momentum.

The aim of introducing a kind of free market discipline was to ensure that worker performance could be monitored, measured, and therefore managed. No longer does a local team deliver a service, knowing what is required of it by an informed public, the whole process is overmanaged by ‘Boards’, senior managers, and performance analysts. These people are remote from the front line, promote their career ambitions and create growth in non-core areas of business such as irrelevant training which leads to muddle, anxiety, and a loss of focus on what ‘core’ activity is.

To each ‘head’ or senior ‘leader’, their bit of activity within the organisation can be treated as a ‘core’ activity, whether that activity is ‘core’ i.e., Protecting Children from Harm, or less ‘core’ activity such as training staff, managing Human Resources, Data Management, or Quality Assurance. The actual core business gets lost among too many priorities. Department heads in the public sector now compete for resources, human and financial, keen to secure ‘investment for their bit of the organisation. 

The next key problem for the public sector is the development of the accountability framework as a substitute for the health check of profit and loss in a private firm.’ If in the private sector core business is disinvested in, company losses will follow.  Accountability frameworks inflicted on the public sector by successive governments since the late 1980s don’t work in the same way. When core staff can see problems but have no power to resource core business, it causes stress and crisis on the front line. The consequence of this model is staff being overmanaged to deliver unachievable targets for the organisation and the organisation’s bonus-obsessed ‘senior leaders. Absence and disillusionment quickly become systemic.

The response from management is More training and accountability to cope with problems caused by accountability colliding with a lack of staff at the critical delivery end. So why do we have accountability models that are so oppressive?

Accountability would have less impact if it were not for the existence of ‘Data’. Data has ruined Public Service delivery. It has created an environment where people who deliver the core business are subservient to process and people who collect data, apply standards that require monitoring and inspection and who undertake quality assurance for the benefit of senior management.

It is at this point that an almost Marxian‘ contradiction’ can be seen. The most important people in an organisation who deliver core business become less important in attracting resources, sometimes because they fail to hit targets due to a lack of relevant staff. The measurers, weighers, trainers, and middle and senior managers take precedence, as they protect and justify the organisation’s performance.

Front-line staff become mere cogs in an alienating, data-based, and micromanaged process. This turns professional decision-making into ‘expected standards’ within a generic ‘accountability’ framework. It renders the ‘coal face’ and core business, a stressful and toxic environment from which everyone wants to escape because the demands are too high, the risks are too great and the rewards too little. But then with no public service ethos, what are the reasons to enter the challenging public sector coal face? Put bluntly, promotion and higher salaries, or a move into an ancillary role.

The Public Sector’s insatiable demand for public money usually means that money is forthcoming when needed, particularly in high-profile services like Health. However, this extra money all too often gets ploughed into more management oversight and accountability, Quality Assurance, or training. In effect, it does nothing to tackle the problems experienced by coal face practitioners who get more and more stressed whilst other qualified colleagues on the same wage, monitor, evaluate, or criticise their performance with the aim of protecting the organisation.

This is the reality for too many front-line public sector workers.  Their workplace is stressful, and the core business is poorly resourced, relative to ancillary tasks and management.  After the continued prevalence of management expanding to achieve greater organisational control and accountability, there are other major problems with the delivery of public services. This next issue is perhaps the one that has arisen since the Millennials became the aspiring generation.

The most significant change in the public sector is the emphasis placed on accelerated promotions based on self-declared competence rather than old-fashioned ‘experience’. This has allowed a younger and more ambitious group of largely inexperienced staff to quickly gain promotion into management including senior management. Competent at ‘intelligence’ and psychometric testing, they enter the public sector for its well-remunerated career structure rather than its core business. Remember management never was a core function. 

It is not uncommon to hear young people entering public service roles describing an expectation, sometimes born of narcissism, that they will get out of core activity and go into management. The reasons are lower stress levels, and career opportunities elsewhere. This is where they will acquire their career-defining salaries, as opposed to old-fashioned character-defining public service. Beyond the level of core delivery and into senior management salaries and rewards, packages are often more than one hundred thousand pounds per annum whilst some workers who get such salaries are barely experienced and still in their mid-thirties or early forties.

This latter point captures the most outrageous ‘contradiction’ in the provision of modern public services, namely the highest salaries are paid to those who take the fewest actual risks. The risk in any public service is at the delivery end, the police officer, nurse, social worker, probation, or housing officer who must manage public expectations whilst exercising authority face to face, which is increasingly becoming the authority to say no to an entitled and expectant public.

This difficult and increasingly risky core business does not go on at the level of the senior leaders as they are encouraging us to style them.  This is a topsy-turvy world where risk is not rewarded but is actively avoided by promotion away from it, and where remote and meaningless managerial responsibility for the burden of risk carried by others is far too well remunerated. But this is now considered ‘normal’ in the modern Public Sector.

It is considered normal because it meets the needs of an ambitious group of career operators who have been encouraged by politicians, employee bodies and the clueless civil service to create the bureaucratic micromanaged public sector as a means of driving an efficiency framework based on accountability but which justifies an ‘elite’ workforce of overpaid managers. The public sector has now removed itself from the core principle of public service which once financed the delivery of services by professionals working directly with and on behalf of the public. It has become a career structure complete with accelerated promotions and plenty of hubris.

If this reality was not bad enough, the managerial solutions offered for stress and ‘burnout’ are either the provision of counselling services to build resilience or the patronising Blue Peter-like reward and recognition schemes or ‘shoutouts’ for those who manage to hang on in. Both these miss the point that it is the workplace that is toxic, and it is made worse by the data-driven expectations of over-paid management plus of course the demands of the general public with a growing sense of entitlement..

It is this that makes the public sector workplace a toxic environment for too many of those who in diminishing numbers carry the risks of the system. The solution seems to be more data, more scrutiny, more management oversight, and more training. But the public sector’s growing army of little emperors has no clothes.

So in summary the public sector’s original post-war values of fairness, equality and service delivery have been replaced by a rapacious free market ethos of unfairness, inequality and elitism, within a newly created management hierarchy that has been created to achieve targets in order to secure funding and in some cases Chief Executives bonuses. No one within this corrosive system apart from the coal-face workers themselves can see anything wrong with this model. The management of this system predictably enough behaves like an exploiting and unaccountable class. When Chairman Mao identified in 1966 that China was developing an elite caste of bureaucratic overseers, remote from the workers he was seeing exactly what we are seeing in the Public Sector today. We don’t need a murderous cultural revolution to deal with it, however just some restructuring and going back to properly funded values of public service and democratically accountable professional public servants.

So, how might we achieve this? Well firstly government must not let public sector careerists persuade them that data, accountability, and more management or training is the answer to serious incidents and high-stress levels. It is not, in fact, it is the opposite. We need more qualified and experienced personnel to leave their current ancillary roles or management positions and take their experience back to the coal face. Remove the absurd differentials in salary where workers who carry massive risk do so for little reward, whilst senior managers who carry no personal or professional risk are over rewarded for simply protecting the reputation of the organisation. Rather than a levelling up, what the public sector needs is a levelling down, an increase in coal face workers and a stripping out of strategic management and the costs associated with data collection, needless training and accountability. With massive savings in management costs and the costs of losing big bureaucracy, an enhanced package of pay should be available for those front-line staff who shoulder both risk AND responsibility for the increasingly challenging work in all areas of public service The experiment of the elitist public sector ‘career’ could then be ended, and not before time.