Citizen Nicholson steps forward: Christian Wolmar meets the adviser appointed to help transform John Major's Charter into reality

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The cultural revolution envisaged by the Citizen's Charter has so far not materialised. British Rail ticket inspectors still respond to requests for information with shock at being disturbed and utter unhelpful mumbles, while many hospitals continue to book all out-patients for an appointment at 9.15am knowing most will spend the whole morning looking at the fading walls of the waiting room.

The White Paper outlining the Charter published in July 1991 was little more than a list of supply-side policy measures, such as privatisation and setting up hotlines, mixed in with nebulous promises. Now, however, with William Waldegrave, a Cabinet rank minister, at the helm and the backing of the Prime Minister, the Government is seeking to transform these hopes into tangible changes that will make a real difference to consumers of services provided by the state. A second White Paper is due out at the end of this month which, it is promised, will contain much more detail and many more specific commitments.

To stir the mandarins into action and defeat their attempts at sabotaging an initiative that challenges their very power base, Mr Waldegrave has recognised that he needs outside advice. He has appointed as special adviser John Nicholson, a business psychologist who quit academia in 1988 to work full time as a consultant.

Dr Nicholson, who has made five television series on management, now runs a company that has a turnover in excess of pounds 1m and boasts a client list ranging from Saab and Volvo to the Post Office and the Law Society. He was so delighted to be asked to do what he sees as the 'most exciting job a consultant could have wished for' that he says he would have done the job for nothing. He normally charges pounds 1,100 a day, but says he will get 'a fraction of that' for the task. He has been appointed for two years and will nominally work one and half days a week, aiming, as he does with all consultancies, 'to do himself out of a job'.

The problem with the Charter is in assessing whether it is a war on the way civil servants go about their business or whether its real aim is to undermine confidence in the very notion of a public sector. And because it is a citizen's charter rather than a citizens' charter, it tends to focus on the individual's rights when clearly collective action, such as school parents or hospital patients joining together in a campaign, is more effective than an individual complaint.

Dr Nicholson attempts to steer clear of these issues. He says that he is neutral on the issue of ownership. 'Organisations do not need to be privatised in order to improve. It's just a matter of applying the right techniques.' That is not a view likely to find favour with his new boss. The White Paper envisaged the privatisation of British Rail and of buses in London as necessary prerequisites for the improvement of the services they provide.

If the Citizen's Charter is to mean anything, it must involve a radical change in culture, from the supplier-determined service to actually finding out what people want. Dr Nicholson suggests that the '20 or so folk in the Citizen's Charter office are trying to bring about the biggest change programme in the history of the planet'. It is about a 'permanent shift in power between the government and the governed'.

That sounds almost like a politician speaking, but he shies completely away from any political questions. 'I told them, if you want a politician, then I'm not your man.'

He does, however, recognise that there will be hard decisions that have political implications. 'Frankly, I haven't come across any organisation where there isn't a rump of managers who simply wouldn't be able to adapt to a new way of doing things. You have to sack them.'

He is aware that this kind of thinking is likely to be as welcome in Whitehall as IRA mortar bomb attacks, because civil servants have always felt that having a 'job for life' makes up for the lower wages and lack of perks compared with the private sector.

As with other popular psychologists, Dr Nicholson's work sounds simple, at times even trite. His books are full of common sense and advice that appears obvious, such as, good managers should 'lead by example' and 'encourage new ways of doing things'. However, behind the truisms, lies a coherent approach that asks a lot of fundamental questions.

He is not always good at following his own advice. He thinks people should establish a balance between the demands of work and those of family life, not putting in long hours, as these are often unnecessary. But he confesses that running a small business such as his 'means I often work long hours and take work home. I'm a good father (he has a son of four), but a lousy husband'.

Dr Nicholson warns that most attempts to transform the culture within organisations fail. 'About two-thirds of change programmes do not work. It's not that the ideas are wrong, but it's the way businesses go about it; they fail for technical reasons. The top down approach just doesn't work. You have to start at the bottom. And it's wrong to think that you need to transform the whole organisation in one go. You can start with one factory or office.'

Dr Nicholson may be genuinely approaching his task at the civil service with glee, but the struggles ahead with Whitehall bureaucracy appear phenomenal, not least because he is operating within a climate of public sector cutbacks.

He says if a hospital wants to guarantee that, say, its ear, nose and throat patients will have an appointment within a few days, 'then you might have to sack a couple of administrators'. Hard choices have to be made. However, this 'there's fat to be pared' argument may have been appropriate before the years of Thatcherism's constant battles with bureaucracy, but in many cases there are real choices to be made between genuinely popular services for which there are not enough resources. The Citizen's Charter may lead to priorities being given to a service simply because it is the subject of a Charter commitment, rather than because it is desirable.

For example, to provide a better library service, you need it to be available in the first place, but opening hours have fallen drastically in the past two decades. In 1975, 229 libraries were open for 60 or more hours per week. Now the total is just 18. Similarly, lines such as the desperately underfunded Fenchurch Street to Southend line have been excluded from the BR Passenger's Charter because they could never meet the standards required - the result of years of underinvestment.

Dr Nicholson recognises these problems, but stresses that managers have to make choices, whether in the public or private sectors. 'Money is often spent on things because it has always been spent on those things, rather than because it is needed. I will try to help identify that waste.'

He is happier talking about how he is planning to change the culture of the civil service. Indeed, possibly the most radical thing he says is that the Government and its institutions should be prepared to admit their past mistakes. Now that would be a real revolution.

(Photograph omitted)