Luke Johnson: Send politicians to work in our schools and hospitals

'To mix with the hoi polloi in classrooms and on the wards will be a revelation to some of them'
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The Independent Online

Michael Portillo wants to make his senior Tory colleagues spend time on the shop floor among public service workers. This idea makes good sense, and for politicians of all parties. The crisis in health and education is about finding and keeping motivated staff: by doing the jobs in question, politicians should see the challenges more clearly.

Last year I spent a week working in our Belgo Centraal restaurant in Covent Garden for a television show. This is one of the most popular restaurants in Britain and the pace during busy shifts is frantic. I did a variety of jobs, from waiting tables to washing the dishes to cooking moules.

It was a useful reminder of what a tough, physically demanding task it is to work in hot, pressurised kitchens. I found the whole experience rewarding, except perhaps for the fact that we let cameras film it! I subsequently worked shifts in other restaurants in our group without cameras, because I feel the experience gives one such a valuable insight into real working conditions and morale among your people.

While on camera the impression I created was – shall we say – less than ideal. In reality the staff respect you for having a go as better than you not bothering at all. At least by donning a uniform and toiling at the coal face – even if only briefly – you are making an attempt to understand what doesn't work and how things could be fixed.

They appreciate the opportunity of pointing out the problems they face in the daily grind of their work. You do learn more about the true nuts and bolts of your organisation than by sitting at a desk and reading yet another report. And you sympathise with those earning less than you, carrying out tiring, often mundane jobs day in day out. One critical thing is that these politicos actually do the job, rather than just hanging around watching. It is not good enough to look at someone else boiling mussels and cleaning toilets: you have to do it first-hand.

So Portillo and co must teach unruly 14-year-olds and sort out patients' bedpans. They should do a mix of jobs, not just the comfy options. I still remember working as a Christmas postman while at school, and how one could spend three hours in torrential rain trying to finish a round. Ever since then I have empathised with postal workers more than I would otherwise.

Possibly the greatest benefit I received from working alongside our waiters, chefs, plongeurs and receptionists was a massive reminder of what a marvellous job people at restaurant level do. I suspect that when the Shadow Cabinet mans the nation's hospital wards and classrooms as frontline workers they too will come away with an impression that as a whole we have hard-working, loyal and resilient doctors, nurses, teachers and other public sector workers. Largely they do a fine job and we are lucky to have them. I suspect many complaining parents, patients and their ambulance-chaser lawyers would feel differently if they too worked in a classroom or on a ward.

Many top politicians spend their lives being ferried around by limousine, surrounded by acolytes and a police guard, distant from the true goings-on in our health and school systems. Our society is still divided by wealth and education to an alarming degree. To mix with the hoi polloi in hospitals, prisons and schools will be a revelation to some of them. This is why many companies require recruits to serve their time in the trenches so they see all points of view, rather than just from the executive suite perspective.

A mistake I made while serving my time on the shop floor was that I didn't listen enough. You need to put effort into finding out what your co-workers think is good and bad. I was so harassed trying to do the job and not to look too much of a fool on camera that I think I came across as unsympathetic. Next time I would be a better listener.

If I can offer one piece of advice to the Tory statesmen/hospital porters, it is the following: do not do the job in the public eye like I did. The media will highlight your mistakes, exaggerate your ignorance and incompetence, and try as hard as they can to make you seem out of touch. Take the jobs quietly and learn from the inside. Resist the temptation to use the exercise as a PR stunt – it will backfire. Your work colleagues will guess who you are, but that can't be helped. Without the glare of the spotlight you will have a more realistic experience and probably damage your public profile rather less! By all means talk about your time as a teacher or police officer after the event, but do the job without fanfare first.

Perhaps Portillo's suggestion will persuade Alan Milburn to man the reception at an overworked accident and emergency department, or Gordon Brown to work as a supply teacher at a failing comprehensive. I have no doubt it would help them make better informed decisions about our public services.

The writer is the chairman of Belgo Group and the founder of Intrinsic Value