Making the road to reform into a reality

‘Cash starved, poorly managed’. In the 1980s and 1990s, this was the
standard explanation for the travails of the UK’s public services. In response,
the Treasury has started to make up for decades of under-investment with a
massive injection of tax-funded expenditure, adding at least 200,000 people to
the public sector workforce between now and 2006.

But with the Government staking its reputation on rapid improvements in
delivery to quell taxpayer dissatisfaction with the quality of services on
offer, reforming of management and working practices must now be priorities.
Yet despite constant ‘modernisation’ rhetoric, doubts remain as to how ‘modern’
the Government’s reform agenda actually is.

Unfortunately, sensible debate over what is needed to improve the public
services is often submerged in crude ideological controversy. Those opposed to
raising taxes to boost public sector budgets unfairly rubbish the Government’s
investment programme. Opponents of reform, meanwhile, seem naive in their
belief that cash alone will do the trick.

And even though the public services are nothing like as bad as they are
often painted, there is a risk that without reform, some of the extra resources
will be lost in public bureaucracies, rather than benefiting users.

Consequently, as Observer journalist Simon Caulkin concludes in a recent
thought-provoking report for the CIPD, the public sector must undergo a
fundamental shift from traditional command-and-control styles of management to
a high-performance model based on autonomy and trust.

Although ministers talk about so-called ‘new localism’, managers and workers
at local level have limited discretion over how they go about meeting Whitehall
targets. This is understandable given the need to ensure accountability to the
taxpayer. But the resulting red tape and form-filling not only undermine the
autonomy and trust needed for high performance, but also, and perversely, slow
the process of change. Far better, therefore, to enable public sector
organisations to develop their own quality-based ‘routes to excellence’ and
make them more accountable at a decentralised level – and in the process
turning the rhetoric of ‘new localism’ into reality.

To move in this direction, the Government should draw a roadmap for improved
service delivery. Key reform landmarks could include a reduction in the number
of centralised targets, increased consultation on the targets that are set,
greater managerial discretion at local level over pay and, in particular,
putting people management at the very heart of the reform process. The journey
along this road to reform may not be easy, and it will be uncomfortable for
some, but its successful completion will greatly serve the common good.

By John Philpott, Chief economist, Chartered Institute of Personnel and
Development

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