Bill Cooke replies to Tony Blair

Responding to the Prime Minister, Bill Cooke argues that we need to engage the progressive people engaged in delivery to work out how public sector reform can be successful.

Dear Prime Minister,

You make a very important point that there is a progressive case for public sector reform. You should know that I am one of those business school academics who nonetheless is critical of the unchallenged spread of managerialism in the public sector.

Yet we should recognize that in the drive for what is called New Public Management there was often a progressive agenda. It was as much late 1980s demands for fair employment for ethnic minorities and women as it was Thatcherism that led to the establishment of processes which are now seen as best human resource management practices. So you are hooking into a noble historic tradition, which you could argue goes back to the early Fabians.

Yet, again, there is much about the public sector which is as good as—no, better than—the private sector. An example: the notion and sense of vocation. Vocation is why, historically, nurses, teachers, and even some university lecturers did great work for little money, but with the perk of society’s respect. The latter cost the exchequer nothing, but delivered the public sector lots and lots.

In the meantime, people’s experience of the private sector is not good—and it may be that it is one of those issues which demonstrates the out-of-touchness of political life. I am one of the Google generation, and the web certainly has changed my patterns of engagement with the private sector. But read the money pages of all the quality newspapers. They are full of stories of private sector incompetence and rip-offs. I’m kind of guessing you haven’t in your life had to spend hours waiting on a 0870 number (do you know what that means?), nor had a disappearing e-ticket, nor had an internet service company help itself to cash from your account. Most people have.

So, yes, there is a progressive case for public sector reform. But what is needed, and maybe is impossible to achieve within the political setting in which you have to work, is nuance and pragmatism, rather than big change initiative one after the other (with, perhaps, the exception of IT based change). For me there is a simple rule. Look to outcomes first over processes.

Targets, fine. But assuming particular institutional frameworks (e.g. quasi-market) might be better than others, particularly when it is hard to get disinterested advice, is problematic. Of course, there must be a care for delivery. But maybe you need to engage the progressive people engaged in delivery to work out how best it might be done.



Dr. Bill Cooke is Senior Lecturer in Organizational Analysis at The University of Manchester, Manchester Business School.

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