Letter: Four formulae for public sector performance

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The Independent Online
From Sir Reginald E. W. Harland

Sir: Regarding Hamish McRae's article, "Get radical: remodel public services" (7 July), there are four formulae used for public sector performance.

One is that nothing can be improved, eg. "It will always take X man-minutes to issue a passport." This is the "men's hairdressing" attitude; men's hairdressing is one of the few occupations whose productivity has barely improved since the Middle Ages, yet whose wages (and prices) drift upwards annually at about 2 per cent more than the Retail Price Index.

The second formula is that of imposing periodic arbitrary across-the- board percentage cuts (usually in manpower). It is assumed that this will drive staff to improve productivity without affecting the quality of service. This formula, of course, merely encourages the "hoarding" of potential savings until the day when they can no longer be avoided. The quality of service usually, nevertheless, falls at the same time.

The third formula is privatisation. If the new bosses can profit from any savings, motivation and gamesmanship will ensure maximum one-time cuts in everything, including levels of quality and service wherever these are not written unmistakably and unavoidably into the contract. It is, in fact, most unusual for such an exact contract to get written - first time anyway. Thus, the cost savings are not achieved and service levels fall too.

Both of the second and third formulae are those defined in Douglas McGregor's Theory X - people only work for sticks and carrots.

The fourth formula uses McGregor's Theory Y - most people actually like to do a good job and to belong to an efficient organisation. Given the chance to propose savings with the opportunity to share in the "profits" without arbitrary and unfair redundancies, staff will be keen to point out what could be done more cheaply, more quickly and better, or, sometimes, even to point out what does not need doing at all.

Labour governments have tended to prefer the first and second formulae; Conservatives, the second and third ones.

Isn't it time to try the fourth?

Yours faithfully,

R. E. W. Harland

Bury St Edmunds,


8 July