Public Service Reform – Geordie Style

Hilary Wainwright: public sector has a capacity to drive internal reform
21 April 2009
In the media
The book "Public Service Reform…but not as we know it!" is a timely reminder of the public sector’s capacity to drive internal reform and cost savings – based on a case study of Newcastle Council’s ICT infrastructure over the last nine years.

Ive just read an intriguing new book from Compass that arrived in our office last week – called Public Service Reform…but not as we know it! (not my exclamation mark…). The publication is a timely reminder of the public sector’s capacity to drive internal reform and cost savings – based on a case study of Newcastle Council’s ICT infrastructure over the last nine years. Apologies for the long blog, but I’m a Geordie…

The study shows how, under the pressure of open competition, council employees recognised existing problems, reorganised and successfully prepared their own bid for maintaining and developing Newcastle’s ICT infrastructure.

According to author Hillary Wainwright, their success shows the folly of assuming that ‘in-house services could never be transformed to match the savings offered by the private sector’. To the contrary, she argues that ‘contrary to New Labour’s criticism of and lack of confidence in local government – public sector managers and staff can drive and lead change, generating innovative ideas and successfully implementing them’.

This is no doubt an argument worth listening to – especially at a time when government must open their ears to all possible strategies for squeezing better value from public spending. And the approach taken by the author: personal portraits, lyrical style – makes it an easy read.

A few positive elements I took away:

1. The case study shows that truly engaging public sector workers in the processes of reform that impact upon them can be productive. Public sector professionals are frequently cast as part of the problem – but they can also facilitate and be part of effective solutions.

2. Choice and competition are not exclusive to (nor do they inevitably require) private sector solutions. If our starting points are providing a better service for citizens and the delivery of ‘best value’, we should be open to whatever solutions are optimal – private or public.

3. Strengthening local accountability is a key driver of effective reform. A recent discussion between Phil Collins and John Cruddas debates this.

4. In a broad sense – a well-managed public sector player in the market can push up quality, through raising the bar for private participants. This can facilitate a well-functioning market; and also exposes public sector providers to valuable information on the wants and needs of service users.

However,

5. The role of agency is key. The bid was pushed along by a strong union (UNISON) presence with a reform-minded leadership, in tandem with engaged and articulate management at the Newcastle Civic Centre. Where this is lacking, the experience will be harder to replicate.

6. The bid emerged from a vigorous anti-privatisation campaign, as well industrial action by IT staff. This provided a strong sense of motivation and – crucially – mobilisation. The question is – would such mobilisation be evident without such a political drive?