Ask the Workers

12 July 2001
Public services could be vastly improved if those who deliver and use them were given a say

The centralised hierarchies that still persist in parts of the public sector were originally modelled on the armed forces. Such anal, top-down forms of management have all too often suppressed the insights and know-how of frontline staff who have daily contact with the people who use them.

If the government's aim is better delivery of public services, what about shifting power away from the senior ranks towards the workers and the users, and their organisations? These are the real "public sector entrepreneurs".

I sat in at a meeting in Newcastle. Fifty or so homecare workers and their elderly or disabled clients were gathered in the grand surroundings of the Bewick room, in the city's blue-glow civic centre. The meeting was called by Unison, following a decision by homecare staff to strike against further privatisation. They were discussing how to improve the quality of the service as well as to defend it.

The specific threat of privatisation to the homecare service in Newcastle made carers and cared for alike think out loud about what was essential to good care. The picture of care services that emerges is full of skilled improvisation and good will.

There are many hidden qualities in it - such as continuity of care (disrupted by privatisation) and adaptability to the needs of the client. The meeting agreed to create a charter for improved homecare, to set out the alternative to privatisation and cost-cutting which is undermining the quality of care.

Here is a glimpse of how the social efficiency of a service could improve if clients and frontline workers had a real say in how it is delivered.

Similar glimpses would be gained from sitting in on meetings of train drivers, signalmen, guards and rail users - their case for public ownership is not ideological, and it is not about any old form of public ownership: they all want to pool their knowledge and skill to meet the needs of the public.

Private businesses, with all their requirements for commercial confidentiality, could never allow such participatory democracy to flourish. New Labour's privatisation plans would merely replace the closed hierarchies of the traditional public sector with the secrecy of the private.

The chance of defending and at the same time democratising the public sector lies with the unions fighting privatisation positively - that is, not just in terms of their members' jobs and conditions.

"Positively public" is Unison's new anti-privatisation slogan. The unions need to go further in reaching out to the public and valuing the knowledge of user-led campaigns which spring up around valued services.

They also need to consider forms of devolved public provision run by accountable social enterprises that are not out to make a profit, and are prepared to create new kinds of companies involving, users, workers and council or parliamentary representatives.

In these ways, frontline workers - cooperating with users, clients and sympathetic managers and politicians - could be the champions of public provision and stand for its enhancement, against the predatory instincts of private corporations. Such a possibility is not only up against the prime minister's over- excitement about private entrepreneurs, it also runs contrary to the founding traditions of the Labour party.

For all the historic closeness of the party to the unions there is no tradition in mainstream Labour of seeing public sector trade unionists as skilled people who could take a lead in improving public services.

On the contrary, the understanding underpinning the deal between the indus trial and political wings of the labour movement was that public service policy was a matter for the party, while trade unions restricted themselves to the strictly economic issues of wages and conditions. It is a narrow creed which in the 70s lost us a variety of amazingly creative industrial policy ideas from some of the most skilled engineering workers in the country.

At that time, shop stewards in the car, machine tools, and aerospace industries, faced with the factory closures and the prospect of wasting on the dole, proposed "alternative plans" for putting the human and technical capacity of British engineering to good use.

The shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace produced the most coherent and practical example - some of their proposals have since been developed by Japanese and German engineering companies. They were summarily dismissed, however, by a short-sighted alliance of Labour ministers, employers and defensive trade union leaders. Is another opportunity about to be missed?

The knowledge, commitment and anger of frontline service workers and the public they serve, present such an opportunity: to reform public services effectively. But this requires New Labour to abandon one of its founding ideologies, a Thatcher-like antipathy towards the trade unions. It needs to uncover its ears and listen to the practical experiences of the workplace and communities like those meeting in Newcastle civic centre.

Copyright 2001 The Guardian