Steve Richards: The great myth of public service

I am pro-politics, but let us not pretend there is a unique public ethos

Sunday 20 April 2014 06:06

What does the saga of the MPs' expenses tell us about the way Britain is run? As I wrote on Saturday I do not believe the answer is that, by some bizarre chance, we elected a bunch of unusually greedy crooks at the last election and that if another 600 or so individuals had been elected they would have behaved differently. Probably we elected a fairly representative sample of those who stand for public office and who, in one form or another, are in work funded by the tax payer.

If we did not elect a parliament of freaks, the MPs' expenses tell us something about the mindset of people working in publicly funded institutions. In particular they expose as too simplistic the idealistic notion of a unique 'public ethos'. Those who work in public life, and almost certainly other parts of the public sector are all motivated by a range of interests, including financial remuneration. Some of them are more interested in money than others.

I doubt if many MPs stood for parliament with money uppermost in their minds. No doubt most of them did so for a whole range of other reasons, including conviction, a desire to participate full time in the never ending political drama (although not many would audition for the current act being played out. Westminster was an unusually gloomy place yesterday) and ambition.

But income was bound to be a calculation as well. In some cases the financial calculation was driven by an almost comical greed. In others it was probably a desire to make or save a bit more money. MPs were offered generous allowances and quite a lot of them made the most of the cash available. I do not state the obvious to justify what they did but to make a broader point: Evidently few are motivated by a sense of 'public ethos' alone.

With some MPs I suspect that the erratic and sometimes futile nature of their roles play a part in fuelling the focus on material gain. Imagine what it must be like arriving at Westminster hoping to be a leading cabinet minister only to find that for much of the time you are lobby fodder, told what to do by the whips. No doubt some of them reflect at least that they have made a bit of money on the second home as they contemplate the irrelevance of their political careers. Perhaps they think less about the public ethos when they do not have very much to contribute to it.

Almost certainly this outlook applies to some extent across the public sector. The BBC is full of well intentioned people who entered the organisation hoping to be the next Jeremy Paxman or John Humphys or a great creative arts' supremo only to discover that an easier life was available on six figure salaries and bonuses if they went into a conveniently ill defined job in management. Some are brilliant and indispensable. Quite a lot could be good, but are in jobs that do not allow them to be. Some are unimpressive and stay on solely to get the money and the pension.

I bet the same applies in the NHS, local authorities (why do chief executives earn more now when councils have fewer powers than in the past?) and in the vast number of Quangos where anonymous nonentities earn substantial sums of money. All of them hide under the cloak of the 'public ethos'.

The blurred lines around the idea of a 'public ethos' became much clearer when Blair and Brown presided over large increases in spending during the second term. At the time it was widely billed as a big test for them, but it was also a significant moment for the public sector, from the civil servants responsible for detailed delivery of services to the doctors on the front line of public services.

Probably quite a lot of them recognised this and felt a renewed sense of duty. But evidently that is not all they felt. Sniffing the large amounts of cash that were suddenly available the big pay demands went in and managers felt the need to appoint more managers. Like the MPs some of them did not turn away when presented with an opportunity to make more money.

In making these points I have not moved to the right of the Taxpayers' Alliance, the pressure group that points out some of the inefficiencies in public spending without addressing how it would improve the quality of services on which all tax payers depend. For selfish reasons I am pleased that in this government's second term Blair and Brown tried to fix the roofs of schools and hospitals while the economic sun was shining. But, when the Taxpayers' Alliance and others show evidence of absurd or excessive waste, they often have a point.

The MPs' expenses saga and its broader implications highlight one flaw in the Conservatives' range of policies and also a significant strength. David Cameron speaks often about the virtues of social and individual responsibility. MPs had the responsibilities to regulate their expenses and they did not act responsibly. On this evidence the Conservatives will be taking quite a risk in giving, say, GPs more power to decide how their budgets are spent. Some of them might decide to spend it on giving themselves more free time.

But Cameron and George Osborne are on to something quite big in their determination to make high earners in the public sector much more accountable for their generous salaries. They plan to publish the incomes of those earning over £150 000 and have also pledged to put public spending on the internet so voters can follow closely how their cash is being spent. As MPs are discovering when light is shone on excess they have no choice but to explain themselves.

I am pro-politics and want the quality and funding of public services to be closer to Sweden's than those of the Third World. But let us not pretend that there is a unique public ethos. Every penny of public spending needs watching and safeguarding by independent regulators and through much more transparency otherwise tax payers and voters will turn away.

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