Management: Tricky test for the public market

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The Independent Online
Ask the man on the Clapham omnibus whether there are too many civil servants doing too many unwelcome things and the answer is obvious. Too many and too much. Thus, 'rolling back the frontiers of the state' will be a vote-winner every time.

Politically, it is a very attractive notion that implies both cutting public expenditure and removing more allegedly 'dead hands' from the machinery of government. Our Clapham constituent wants less government, less taxation, more apparent freedom.

There is a clear, if radical, case for limiting the public sector to a range of core activities that the private sector cannot or will not undertake. The trouble starts when you try to list possible candidates for this core range.

Police, defence, basic healthcare provision, education, social benefits, long-stop pension provision and the judiciary seem, at first glance, to be the obvious core. However, the moment a list appears so does the powerful defence mechanism of state bureaucracy - give up a little, hold on to the rest and add a little more.

Some commercial practice is being embraced through the Government's market-testing programme being propelled with mild political force through most departments of state. Embraced might be rather too strong a word for it, unless one thinks in terms of the medieval iron maiden. 'Toyed with' may be nearer the mark.

Market-testing units are being charged with responsibility for identifying what can be privatised or commercialised in each department, defining the criteria under which the private sector can tender for the work and then, all being well, putting the plan into action. No one seems to be asking whether the activity is actually needed.

I suspect that this whole market-testing concept is seriously flawed. Archbishop Cranmer knew a thing or two about the affairs of state, albeit in the sixteenth century. Besides creating the glorious language of the Book of Common Prayer, he also offers relevant insights: 'We have erred and strayed . . . like lost sheep; following too much the devices and desires of our own hearts' - a more than apt description of many market-testing initiatives I have met in the last year or so.

The initial proposition for market testing is clear. Not everything now done in the public sector needs to be in future. Many aspects of public administration are sufficiently similar to private sector models to allow commercial standards to be introduced, and public finance cannot support the present scale of public administration. It is, in the words of its political drivers, good for public servants to feel the competitive edge of private sector steel prodding where it hurts.

The vaunted consequences are clear, too: lower cost of provision, better service standards and more public choice. Admirable and plausible. But impossible to achieve until the erring and straying are faced and addressed.

Those charged with market-testing initiatives are being asked to apply commercial judgements, of which they have little experience, to their own departments, knowing that they are, in all probability, accelerating their own oblivion. At the same time, they have to apply inappropriate public procurement rules.

Incomprehensibly, many of these market-testing units have defined their specification for commercial tendering without any form of discussion with potential bidders, while filling it with conditions that have more than a whiff of dogma about them.

Sceptics of the whole process might say that that is the inevitable consequence of leaving turkeys to decide on the date for Christmas. However, I see three things that might give market- testing a chance.

First, it would seem sensible to show public servants what the advantages are likely to be for all stakeholders in the change - themselves especially.

Second, the development of real relationships with the potential supply side, to improve understanding of what is or is not feasible (ie commercial) must be designed into the process.

Third, the dignity of public service must be protected. Many public servants are not motivated by money; they care about the traditions of service and impartiality that have characterised generations of them.

What is at stake is the redefinition of what is the commonweal - arguably a new balance between the highest commitment to public service and best practice, commercial ways of delivering those services that are really needed.

Little wonder that market-testers follow the devices and desires of their own heart - it is probably the only sane thing to do in the absence of this vital redefinition.

The author is marketing director at Sundridge Park Management Centre.