Public servants and their inefficient ways

Society has always needed scape goats for its many failures, it makes it easier if one can identify a person or group responsible for these failures, it avoids any difficult soul searching into the real cause of the problem. Usually these scapegoats are from an ethnic minority, it was only 50 years ago that boarding houses would have notices stating that the Irish were not welcome. Since that time new scapegoats have appeared usually from the new immigrants at one time is was Afro Caribbean’s who were blamed for the increase in crime in the 1980s, a role they have now vacated, which is filled by Eastern Europeans. However what is unusual is the addition of an occupational group to this list of scapegoats, that is the public servant. We are blamed for the lack of dynamism in society or as it is more usually termed economic growth. Public servants either through their adherence to bureaucrat practices make change so or impossible or they just syphon off tax revenues to little productive purpose.  
The outing of this parasitic group that feeds off the life blood of the economy was the work of the American public choice theorists. They highlighted our bad work practices, in the words of Charles Murray the public servants solution to a problem was always the same, to ask for more money to create a new department to deal with the solution and promote themselves to run this department. All that motivates us is the opportunity to increase our own status and incomes. Job security means that we don’t have to respond to public demand. Our customers the public lack any sanction to compel us to perform better. The solution is to break up these public sector monopolies into competing businesses that are forced to compete for the public’s custom if they are to survive. 
These theorists confirmed what society had always thought that we were a group of jobsworths who were only interested in feathering our own nests who provided the public with an abysmal service in return for our inflated incomes and job security. This is such an obvious truth that journalists such as Simon Jenkins can state with certainty that the education, health, legal and defence systems waste public money on a vast scale and that profligacy with public money produces little of value. It is such an obvious truth that he does not have to produce any facts or figures to prove his assertion, everybody knows that he is right.
Governments have long been persuaded of the truths of public choice theory, so much so that they have contracted out, wherever possible services to the private sector. Where services have remained in the public sector, they have created large external costly bureaucracies, whose only task is to ensure that public sector workers do their job, according to the principles of the free market. These inspectorates have names such as, the Care Quality Commission and their sole role is to police public sector workers. Neither the government or the advocates of public choice theory see the irony of having to introduce a large and costly bureaucracy to ensure that the public sector now works according to the principles of the free market. Public servants instead of experiencing the freedoms of the so called free market are in fact part of a new ‘Big Brother’ society. Winston Smith’s world is that of the new public sector.
Given that public choice theory teaches that public servants are only self interested of individuals who have little interest in serving the people the new inspectorate and public sector managers have to be vigilant to root out any of the bad practices and habits that are associated with bureaucracies. The only way they can achieve this is to monitor every minute of the public servants working day. However even the new bloated management teams and inspectorates cannot be physically present at every minute of the working day of each staff member. Consequently they have devised a system of targets which is constantly growing as inspectors are constantly thinking of new ones and workers are expected to provide evidence that they have been working to achieve these targets. This involves members of the staff team completing paperwork to demonstrate how they have achieved these targets.The demands on staff time for record keeping have reached such level that in teaching for instance the time spend on record keeping is creeping up towards 50% of time spent in work. The priority in the public sector has become not service delivery but record keeping which enables the manager to demonstrate the ‘appearance’ of staff adopting good working practices which is thought to be indicative of the quality of service provided. 
These new managers and inspectors have a fear of staff having free time on their hands, teachers provide perhaps the worst example in their minds. They have breaks when the children are going out to play or having lunch. Unfortunately for these new ‘public choice’ theorist children cannot be keep working without a break. This gives the teachers an opportunity to get together and talk, this give rise to the greatest fear of the public sector reformer, which is ‘canteen culture’. Given free time the teachers have the opportunity to discuss their teaching with their colleagues and what this enables is the dissemination of ‘worst practice’,the so called canteen culture or what others might call the ‘work ethic’. These reformers are terrified of the older staff passing on bad practice to new teachers. The only solution is to turn free or non teaching time into work time, this time can be used to complete some of the many records required of teachers to demonstrate good practice.
I can confirm the worst fears of the public choice theorists, we did not spend non teaching time discussing good teaching practice, but we gossiped about television programmes, who was having an affair with who, argued about politics. In other words we never used this precious time to discuss how to improve our teaching practice, we were of target or whatever the management speak is for wasting time. I can remember that is one school a group of staff had set up in one of the staff rooms the board game ‘Risk’ and spent all their lunch times playing this fiendish game. This surely demonstrates best the horrors of allowing staff to do what they wish with non teaching time.
Fortunately reformers were able to see the horrors of the old well established service practices and were able to sweep them away. Now in schools staff are constantly on target and the obstructive ‘canteen culture’ of the past is fast disappearing. As an example of the latter I can remember receiving a survey from the education ministry asking to complete and return so they could work on the results to improve teaching practice in all schools. I with all my senior male colleagues threw the survey in the bin. Today no teacher would contemplate treating with such contempt a directive from the education ministry.
What I going to suggest is that when we consider the fruits of these reforms the question to be asked is have the expensive reforms achieved what was intended or could improvements have been better managed at a much smaller cost. As a sceptical economist I tend to the latter view, perhaps an example from teaching will demonstrate my view better. The governments of today and the recent past keep trumpeting the success of their reforms as demonstrated by the improvement in school exam results. What these politicians fail to understand is that there is a different between coaching students to pass an exam and educating them. Educationalists will admit what makes a good education is open to debate, as is how students actually learn, yet our education ministers claim they know, in fact they have very little understanding of what makes a good education. It may be elitist to say so but throwing out a few spurious statistics will impress a gullible press and media but that all it is the appearance of an improvement in the education system.
Unlike most critics of the recent reforms I am not going to argue that the previous education system in which the public service ethos was seen as the main motivator was perfect but that the reforms introduced at great cost have failed to achieve their purpose. There were much better ways to improve a system that actually worked quite well, methods better than adopting a ground zero approach to reform. What reformers believe is only by destroying the old system and practices will they will be able to change the system. 
What Simon Jenkins the journalist and all the denizens of Fleet St., Westminster and Whitehall fail to understand is that public sector work is undertaken by people for other people, it’s a personal relationship. People are different and have different needs they cannot all be fitted into one schema developed some Whitehall bureaucrats under the direction of a politician. Policy is directed in way that will win favourable headlines. The teaching of reading demonstrates this, any educationalist or teacher will say that children learn to read in a variety of different ways.Yet the education ministry has declared in all ignorance that only one method is acceptable and that is phonics. Good practice or reality matters little to the Whitehall bureaucrat or politician, why matters is conformity to what is seen as good practice.
What politicians and the media are good at doing is seeing perceived failures or inefficiencies and acting in a way that is often counter productive to good practice. Certainly it is frustrating when you are queuing at the Post Office when the counter clerk takes what seems to be an inexplicable break, when there are huge queues in the office. Yet this may be the only way the stressed staff can cope with the myriad list of rules, understaffing and the sheer monotony of the work. However it is on this perception of the service that our political masters decide policy. When I was in the teachers staffroom myself and my colleagues would often express in disrespectful attitudes our attitude to our managers and the latest government initiative. Our disrespect was often a way of coping with the stress of the job, can I suggest it was no more than skin deep moaning. Today that would be considered as heresy and such negativity would be discouraged quite actively in the staff room, denying the staff the opportunity to let go, now everybody has to be on message. 
When prejudice becomes policy it makes for bad policy, the fact that every body knows that public sector works abuse the system to their own advantage, is the poorest basis on which to form a policy. The evidence for the poor performance of public service has never been more than anecdotal, yet it is on the basis of this anecdotal evidence that the reforms of the past twenty or so years have been based. While there may be some evidence for improvements in quality of service the evidence is not overwhelming. Policy based on an obsession with the minutiae of the workers daily routine it is obviously going to miss the ‘wood for the trees’. Success is now measured in small percentage increases in statistics, the sight of the bigger picture has been completely lost. The old British civil service had the skills and resources to focus the whole nation’s productive effort towards fighting the war, the new British civil service was unable to organise the competitive tendering by rail companies for right to operate the West Coast railway line. It was so poorly organised that the losing bidder Virgin Rail was easily able to get the decision reversed at a court hearing. If mistrust is the abiding characteristic of the relationship between ministers and civil servants the quality service provided is going to be poor.
To this sceptical economist it appears that the politicians having identified faults in the public sector have devised reforms that instead of improving the service have on the whole made it much worse public service.  


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s