Productivity in the Public Sector, or value?

Are we productive or valuable?

We continue our week with a brilliant guest post which hit our inbox.  If you have something about local government you’d like to share with the world e-mail it to us at, but not until you’ve enjoyed this.

One of the most corrosive “narratives” around at the moment in the media, and amongst the commentariat, is that the public sector is unproductive.

The private sector creates jobs, promotes growth, and pumps needed cash into the economy. The public sector is parasitical, taking a cut of the economic wealth of the nation and siphoning it off to support a never-ending tide of bureaucrats and middle-managers, none of whom are involved in front-line service delivery – yet who are adept at feathering their own nests.

A lot of commentators are keen to argue that such people are inherently unproductive. They are the antithesis of entrepreneurs – dynamic go-getters with the will to succeed and the knowledge that if they fail, the buck stops with them. And they’re the polar opposite of the chief executives of big corporations – who stand and fall by the support of their stakeholders, who have the freedom to take their money out and invest elsewhere if they’re unhappy with the direction of the company in which they have a stake.

Simplification? Quite possibly. But it’s a compelling argument if the only public services you see day-to-day are rubbish collection and street lighting. And it’s an argument born of enraged impotence – firstly, at the injustice of a world where the richest spoils go to those who do the least to earn them, and secondly, at the utter unaccountability of these pen-pushers in their non-jobs – even though, as the refrain often goes, “we pay their wages!”

This comes to the centre of it. For a lot of people accountability is a contract. I pay my council tax and expect a certain service in return. A lot of people don’t recognise in that transaction any value for money. After all, £145 a month for someone to collect your bins (twice) and fill in the odd pothole here and there is a pretty poor deal.

But – and I imagine that I’m hardly writing for a hostile audience here – this misunderstands two things.

Firstly, it misunderstands that accountability in the public sector is more complicated than a supplier/user relationship. It’s about balancing interests between often competing demands, in a way that will often dissatisfy someone – making tough decisions that are often the responsibility of one of those non-jobbing middle managers. And it’s about subsidising the services of those who can’t pay for them with money from people who require minimal support, but who have a higher income. In this context, “value for money” becomes a moveable feast – and impossible to make a judgment about on an individual basis.

Secondly, it fails to take account the complexity of public service delivery, and the value of services that a lot of people don’t see every day. Private companies can play to their strengths and plan accordingly. They can drop unprofitable lines without interference, and (in comparison with the public sector) have minimal regulation to worry about. The Government hasn’t passed a law requiring Coca-Cola to run an airline, as well as produce soft drinks – but local government in particular is in an analogous position, having to provide a whole multitude of services to local people, many of which are vital – and many of which are extremely expensive – but which are poorly understood by local people. The situation is arguably compounded when councils are restricted from being able to explain effectively what they do to their residents through restrictions on publicity.

So, accountability in the public sector has to work in a different way. One that is more difficult to understand because it isn’t brutally transactional in nature. In this context “productivity” is meaningless, in the traditional way the term is used, because the public sector adds value in ways that cannot be monetised, or easily measured. It demands a different approach. It’s about identifying the limitations that organisations like councils are under, and seeing how we can improve the services they provide, in a way that does no harm to people who rely on councils and their partners for things like social care and children’s services. It’s about mutual understanding too. It’s very easy to highlight some posts in an organisational structure that sound silly and superfluous. It’s quite another to actually understand what the person in that post does. Equally, it’s all too easy for those working in authorities to go on the defensive against such criticisms and say that, “they don’t know what they’re talking about”, rather than engaging with criticisms which, in some instances, may be founded in reality.

I suppose that what I am slowly inching towards is an argument for moderation. At the risk of sounding too much like Aslaksen in Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” (nice pop culture reference for you there, as well as being a play which is all about the accountability of public services), moderation, on all sides, and the willingness to understand the point of view of others, is absolutely crucial to successful accountability in the public sector. It promotes an environment of thoughtful discussion and debate, based on evidence rather than prejudice. This is why proper accountability in the public sector is so fragile – this kind of moderation is rare at the best of times, and even more so now, when the battle lines are being drawn around local government services as we speak.

Only when we have this moderate approach can we have a proper conversation about what “productivity” and “value” really are, and finally reach a judgment – a sensible one – about whether the public sector is actually productive and valuable.

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4 Comments on “Productivity in the Public Sector, or value?”

  1. I don’t think we’re very good at helping ourselves when it comes to this debate. If we’re hoping for the moderation to come from those trying to sell papers we’re looking in the wrong place.

    Local authorities have really compelling material to work with – there’s massive breadth and depth to what we do. But the stuff that effectively shines a light onto it is all too rare.

    I don’t believe that’s entirely due to external restrictions on what we can, or can’t say. There seems to be an immovable belief in comms as a tool of reputation control rather than a gift to the story teller.

    What we do is complex, and it’s easy to misunderstand and misrepresent. But at the moment, slaves as we are to local print media, we grant well-worn, and soul-sapping, rhetoric the freedom of the news cycle.

    The ‘non-job’ mythology is easy to foment. The work isn’t sexy enough for our own publications and it’s not news worthy enough for a press release. So the people doing those jobs are rendered mute, nobody tells their tale.

    Which is a shame because there’s a narrative thread in their work which would speak for itself.

    The ‘Town Hall Pravdas’ might be dead but I think a few simple web tools used with authenticity (warts and all, the rough with the smooth) can encourage balanced debate and stimulate meaningful local conversations.

    Perhaps that’s risky but making the first move always is, particularly if you’re repairing a dysfunctional relationship.

  2. Ed Hammond Says:

    I think it has to be a combination of tools really – web based tools will be one of them, but local print media still has an important role to play.

    Many local authorities have developed a dysfunctional relationship, over the years, with local papers. The decisions of many title owners to cut back on local reporting has exacerbated this problem. But they are still the principal, week-by-week tool that councils can use to get in touch with a large (if dwindling) proportion of their population.

  3. Dan Says:

    You’re going to find unproductive staff in both sectors, as well as very productive staff.

  4. […] Still with our Government, a fantastic post about why those who criticise the public sector are wrong. […]

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