Leading Article: Enforced reforms for civil servants

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SMALL earthquake in the Civil Service; none killed. Last week's strike by civil servants was little noticed by the public and virtually ignored by the Government. It deserved more attention, whether or not further action follows. As William Waldegrave announced in the Commons on Thursday, the Government intends to press on with its programme of 'market-testing' under which a widening range of Civil Service work is put out for competitive tender. He is undeterred by the fact that savings of only about pounds 100m have been achieved, as against a target of pounds 375m.

The argument over the programme is part pragmatic, part philosophical. How can taxpayers get better services without paying higher taxes? Where are the proper limits of the state's responsibilities? And what of the ethos of public service?

In the United States, the fashionable book on the subject is Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. Much read here, too, it describes how the public sector can be transformed by an infusion of entrepreneurial spirit that switches management from commands to incentives, from 'rowing to steering'.

The central idea is obviously applicable to Britain and is already showing promising results. But it may be misunderstood and misapplied by a British government that has swung too far towards a minimalist view of government. The American book does not call for massive privatisation but for revitalising the public sector by importing modern management methods from the private sector. Contracting out some public services is part of this process, but not its be all and end all. The process also relies heavily on stimulating initiative in local government, which does not seem to be on John Major's agenda.

Warning voices are being raised in Britain. Professor Peter Hennessy argues that the private sector should not take over services such as prisons and taxation, where coercion is required. Those should be performed by servants of the Crown under public control. Douglas Hurd appealed eloquently to the Conservative Party conference to 'show that we are not driven by ideology to question every function of the state'.

Mr Waldegrave is trying to move too far too fast. He is likely to produce spectacular results in some areas and disasters in others. If civil servants can avoid appearing merely as defenders of entrenched interests and try instead to be constructive about necessary reform, they might attract more attention - even sympathy.