Commentary: The shape of services to come

ANYBODY WHO has experience of a National Health Service hospital waiting room knows how much government services need to improve. Privatisation might have reduced the size of the public sector, but what is left falls short of the best in the private sector.

The Labour government's White Paper on Better Government, expected soon, will set out a grand vision for improvement. But, according to one of Britain's leading management consultants, it is not likely to provide much guidance on how this can be achieved.

Lynton Barker, head of UK Management Consultant Services at PricewaterhouseCoopers, is co-author of a book that has as its central premise the idea that New Labour's Third Way must be extended into "all parts of their delivery machine - the UK Civil Service and their private sector partners/suppliers".

Mr Barker, who co-wrote Transforming Government Services with an American colleague, acknowledges that organisations such as his will benefit in this approach, PwC already being among the biggest suppliers of consulting services to government bodies.

He sees "an enormous training and skills redevelopment programme for government managers and officers".

One of the key areas for change will be the civil servant's attitude to risk. People used to taking a safety first approach are likely to have trouble handling risks associated with delivering best value, he says. "Politicians are going to have to accept that they'll need executives to take more risks, to do things differently, and they'll have to stand by them if it doesn't work."

The practicalities of this new way of doing things are also not lost on the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa). In a consultation paper last week, they set out a possible accounting framework for underpinning best value in local authorities.

Certain issues must be addressed, says Cipfa, including appropriate definitions of the cost of services, what detail should be recorded to aid comparisons between authorities, the relevance of trading accounts, and how the accounting framework should recognise partnerships between authorities and private sector.

As Mr Barker points out, Mr Blair's Third Way draws on both sides of the political divide and reflects what is happening in public services in other parts of the world. Thus, it has a great deal going for it.