LETTER : When laudable goals and fine words offer simplistic solutions to complex problems

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YOUR response to the Islington report ("PC: the right is guilty, too", 28 May) recognises one aspect of the intrusion of political correctness into local government. Another is hinted at by Margaret Hodge who, we are told in the same edition, "didn't twig" how poor some of her managers were ("We got things wrong").

This critique of local government officers and the use of external consultants have given public services a new language. Notions such as the pursuit of excellence and total quality management are difficult to resist because they combine laudable goals with apparently systematic means to achieve them.

Unfortunately, they are also products, being sold by the many management consultancies seeking new business in the public sector. I recently heard how middle managers were "dragged kicking and screaming" to an annual briefing on performance management. It is worth considering whether those managers may know more about the effective use of their time than consultants who move from one authority to another, offering simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Since 1979 central government has sought to contain public spending while avoiding the outcry that reductions or deteriorations in services provoke. Management consultants have been quick to propose ways of doing more with less. This renaissance of "scientific" management has generated an endless round of meetings and masses of documentation in search of measurement: it has distorted priorities and undermined the subtle processes through which local government has traditionally found a realistic balance between public expectations and limited resources.

The result of this form of "political correctness" is a climate in which grandiose claims cannot be challenged openly and experienced officers keep their thoughts to themselves.

Until our fledgling democracy faces up to the hard choices between ends and means "political correctness" will continue to inhibit the open exploration of what is wrong, and might be improved, in local government.

Philip Ellis

Eastbourne, E Sussex

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