Public Sector Manangement: From private to public sector - More executives are making the move into Whitehall and local government. Sarah Hegarty asks how they manage

'THE FIRST thing people ask you in the civil service is your age, then your grade. Then they know where you are in the structure,' says a private sector consultant who, in the 1980s, spent two- and-a-half years in the Department of Trade and Industry. He was one of a steady stream of executives from industry and commerce who are encouraged to sample life in Whitehall.

He made the move, on secondment, because 'I liked the idea of spending time with the mandarins. I always thought the civil service was a different sort of world.' When his contract with the DTI finished he returned to the private sector, having been given the ultimate accolade: 'At my leaving party, my boss said I'd become a bit of a mandarin myself - I'd acquired some of their sensitivities to propriety.'

Such intangible qualities are reputedly the very stuff of everyday life in the corridors of power. But sometimes the evidence of a different culture can be more concrete. According to Dr Julia Walsh, chief executive of the food, farming, land and leisure consultancy Adas, anyone coming into the public sector for the first time would be amazed by 'the volumes of paperwork'. She believes this is 'partly because of the lack of clear accountability, which leads to huge circulation lists for everything'. Another obvious difference is 'decision-making by committee - although we are addressing that within Adas'.

Dr Walsh arrived at Adas last May after a career in industry, most recently as general manager of Fisons Instruments. She says she was 'attracted by the challenge of managing change' in the organisation, which became an agency, jointly owned by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Welsh Office, in April. Dr Walsh claims to relish 'the challenge of responding to market forces within a system that wasn't set up to achieve flexibility'. If that sounds like banging your head against a brick wall, she is diplomatic, admitting only that, in the run-up to the organisation becoming an agency, 'there was a lot of healthy debate'.

Central government isn't the only destination for those with a yen for public service: Michael Honey, formerly chief executive of the London Docklands Development Corporation, moved to Gloucestershire County Council as chief executive in November 1990. Although he had previously worked in local government, he was struck by 'the much greater emphasis on customer care' on his return.

He has firm views on the differences between public and private sectors. 'One of the big contrasts with the private sector is the ambiguity of our role. Although there's now more concentration in the public sector on our objectives and how to measure them, that can be very difficult to do. By and large, objectives in the private sector are more narrowly defined - it's easier to know whether you're doing the job or not.

'That ambiguity is one of the most difficult things for people from the private sector to cope with - plus the political dimension.' This means negotiating skills are vital: 'I work to a board - the elected members - of 63 people, from all walks of life. We have a hung council here, and I need two out of three politicians to agree on anything. That's not very easy to achieve.'

Despite the well-documented frustrations of working in public services, there is still a healthy flow of transfers and secondees. And Whitehall is keen to encourage cross-cultural understanding: in 1991, according to a Cabinet Office spokeswoman, there were 413 secondments into the civil service from outside. Although many of these - 174 - came from industry, there were also representatives from European and international organisations, as well as those from other public services such as education and health. There is also a steady stream in the other direction - in 1991, 1,411 civil servants left government departments for the outside world.

This imbalance is unlikely to be redressed while public sector salaries, in the main, cannot compete with those outside. Although a Whitehall permanent secretary - the highest mandarin rank - earns over pounds 87,000, the average, even for higher-grade managers, is around half that, or less. So experience of the public sector has to have other attractions. For the consultant who spent time at the DTI, the chance to deal with ministers and policy makers gave a different viewpoint. 'I enjoyed working with a lot of very intelligent people, and having the contact with ministers - seeing how the machine worked.' Having held a senior position in finance he was not fazed by the size of the numbers under discussion, but found it 'more matter of fact than I'd expected'. An unexpected bonus was 'if you wanted to get something done, you could organise a meeting with the appropriate people and they'd turn up, the meeting would begin on time and everyone would have a clear understanding of what they were meant to do and would go away and do it. In the private sector it's much more chaotic - there always seem to be other priorities.'

But he points out that a common misunderstanding among civil servants is that the private sector is 'more homogenous than it is - they think there is a true parallel between their huge organisation and the private sector. But there are few companies that are so structured - it's not comparable.'

At Adas, Julia Walsh admits to being 'pleasantly surprised at the quality of the staff and their entrepreneurial spirit - not something the public sector is known for. There is also a tremendous sense of loyalty and commitment to the job, as well as a respectability which people respond to, although in part that comes from the rather protected environment.' As head of a consultancy, Dr Walsh has to keep the customer's needs firmly in mind, a concept she admits can be difficult to get across. 'There's still a lack of customer awareness in the public sector. We are more customer oriented now, because we have to be - but because the public sector is effectively a monopoly people may think, 'It doesn't apply to us.' And the more remote you are from the customer - say, in administrative departments - the more difficult it is. I have some sympathy with that.'

At Gloucestershire council, Michael Honey says he was surprised at 'how much more private sector-oriented the public sector has become. There is much more a feeling of concentrating on our core businesses - what we're good at.' But the core business can be hard to define. 'We do 150 types of jobs, from providing the fire service to social workers, repairing the streets and funding libraries and the police. It's a huge range of operations which no business in its right mind would combine.'

At Adas, Dr Walsh sees the public sector moving towards 'doing many of the things large companies were doing in the 1970s and 80s: focusing on smaller business units with more delegation and clear objectives'.

She believes that the 'two-way flow' of people between public and private sectors is under way, although 'it will be some time before there is a lot of movement, which is a pity. If you can bring together the good values of the public sector and the good practice of the private sector, you have a formidable set of values.'

(Photograph omitted)

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