Examination of Witness (Questions 79-99)|
THURSDAY 8 NOVEMBER 2001
79. Lord Plant, may I welcome you on behalf
of the Committee. As you will know, we are conducting a running
inquiry into public service reform issues. The first component
of it is to try to understand what this thing called the public
service ethos might be and therefore how it might bear on some
of these reform issues. As you are someone who has been thinking
and writing a good deal about this latterly, we thought we had
better ask you hereto hear from you and talk to you about it.
Thank you very much indeed for coming. Would you like to help
us by saying something to start with?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) First, thank
you for inviting me. This is a good opportunity to ventilate some
of the issues. I am very pleased to be here. Just by way of background,
I submitted a paperit is a bit long and arcanebut
perhaps I can summarise one or two of the things in it. First
of all, the paper was invited by the Social Market Foundation,
which is conducting a programme of research on public sector reform.
They took the view, and I very much sympathise with this, that
since the idea of a public service ethos or a public service ethic
is often invoked by critics of private sector involvement in the
management of public services, as a reason for not involving the
private sector, then it is rather important to try to produce
some kind of analysis of what the public service ethic or the
public service ethos might be thought of as being. This paper
is an attempt to address that. It is not suggested that it is
in any sense exhaustive or authoritative. It was the best that
I could do in the time available in terms of trying to characterise
a public service ethic or ethos. I suppose one of the main thrusts
of the paper, and perhaps it is not very clear, would go something
like this. First you have to look at the public service ethic
partly in relationship to the sorts of goods that are provided
by the public sector. These are goods that are often thought to
be matters of citizens' rights; even if those rights are not in
the strict sense justiciable, nevertheless we think that they
extend entitlements to education, social security, health care
and so forth. There is a strong culture of rights or entitlement
in respect of the goods that are provided by at least some areas
of the public sector. Secondly, because they are seen as rights
or entitlements, it is assumed that there will be equity, and
equality of access in terms of the distribution of those goods
and impartiality in terms of the administration of them. That
is one side of the coin and obviously we can explore that if you
like in more detail. At the same time, though those goods are
in some ways quite abstract in the sense of what a good education
is, what health is or what individual security is thought to be
are quite complex matters. The more you try to specify them in
terms of rules or targets and so forth, the more you may well
create perverse incentives. I have found this particularly in
universities with the research assessment exercise with people
spending enormous amounts of time producing research papers that
may or may not be all that important and perhaps spending less
time in teaching students or doing other things that one might
be supposed to be doing. To try and specify these goods becomes
more and more difficult without creating perverse incentives.
Because of the abstract and complex nature of the goods to which
people feel they are entitled, and which cannot be specified very
easily in more and more complicated sets of rules, you have to
have some degree of trust in the people who are delivering those
goods to do it impartially, in an equitable way, and to pursue
the goals, abstract and complicated though they may be, set out
for that part of public service, in a reasonable and trustworthy
way. I do not see that there is any alternative ultimately to
that degree of trustand I am not saying that there are
very strong arguments for this but it is a fact for the momentbecause
you cannot actually write rules of law allocating resources to
individuals in a complex, large-scale society. That is a widely-accepted
view amongst lawyers. If you cannot do that, then there has to
be a degree of discretion in how resources are allocated, but
that discretion has to be guided by principles of impartiality
and equity. Because there is that degree of discretion, you have
to invest trust in people who are doing the delivery. I do not
think you can get away from that. There has to be a degree of
trust between government and the public sector, between citizens
and the public sector, and between individuals working in the
same area of the public sector. They have to trust one another
that people in a hospital or in a school are doing their best
to deliver the goals of the service, and they have to trust one
another to do that. I do not think there is any way around that,
and yet some of these aspects that I have been talking about contrast
to a degree with the values embodied in the private and business
sector and also in relation to the voluntary sector. In the voluntary
sector people do not have rights to services unless they are parties
to a contract. Entitlements and so forth do not exist in quite
the same way. In the private sector it is perfectly reasonable,
and it happens every day of the week; you will find that you make
a contract to provide goods to person X and person Y is in all
other respects like person X but you do not make a contract to
provide person Y with goods. Discretion, choice and so forth are
endemic in the private sector. There is not this degree of impartiality
and equity at stake. Given the nature of the goods, given the
complexity of the goods, given the importance of equity and impartiality,
then I think trust becomes an inevitable and inalienable feature
of the public sector.
80. Can we try to tease out some of that with
you, if we can? When you talk about public service ethos and public
service ethic, are you talking about the same thing?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I did not address that question
in the paper and I have been thinking about it a bit since. I
think I should have called it "public service ethos"
rather than "public service ethic" for the following
reason, and I am not sure how much weight to put on this, but
I do think there is something of a contrast here. An ethos I think
simply is a matter of the spirit of an organisation; it is to
do with how it shares understanding, perhaps even with a shared
tradition within an organisation, that kind of thing. It is a
kind of second nature to people who are part of whatever it might
be. I am not talking simply about the public sector at the moment
but just what an ethos is. The ethos of a school or the ethos
of a church or whatever it might be is not something that is set
out in rules or codes or anything like that. It is a matter mainly
of the habitual way people do things. It is rooted in common understandings
and so forth, whereas it seems to me an ethic perhaps could be
seen as being much more to do with codes, rules, structures and
so forth. There are issues, it seems to me, about moving from
ethos to ethics, from habits to codes, if you like.
81. Does that mean that you do not think you
can codify an ethos, or even if you could, you should not?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I do not think ultimately
you can because an ethos is more to do, as I have said, with habits
and perhaps tacit understanding between people, expectations of
people who know one another, who perform the same sorts of duties.
It is quite difficult to codify all of that. Whether you should
try to do it in some respects, yes, I think you can. It
may be a good thing to do it in some rather general respects,
that because issues about entitlement, impartiality, equity are
important, then you might try to codify some of those things,
but you are not turning the whole of an ethos into a code. The
ethos is still there, if it is there at all, but you are, as it
were, trying to extract from the ethos a number of things that
you then particularly want to draw attention to and emphasise.
I do think it is a case of changing the ethos fully into a code,
if I can put it that way.
82. You say "if it is there at all"
and I would like to explore that with you because I am not sure
whether you are describing here a culture which might exist or
whether you are talking empirically about something which does
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I am a philosopher by trade.
That is my academic role, so I do not tend to let facts get too
much in the way! What I would say is that it is very difficult
to understand how you could actually run the public services,
whether they are being run well or badly at the moment, without
some assumptions about there being an ethos of trustworthiness.
How far one might go in terms of trying to test that out empirically
might involve quite large methodological questions about how you
can in any way measure trust and so on and so forth. The point
that I suppose I am trying to make as just a piece of moral reasoning,
if you like, rather than an empirical claim, is that you cannot
actually imagine how you could run large-scale institutions, delivering
goods that bear directly on people's fundamental wellbeing, to
which they feel they have entitlement and the distribution of
which should be guided by equity and impartiality, without making
quite large assumptions about trust and trustworthiness.
83. The reason I asked that question is because,
as you know, there is a large body of evidence and argument which
says that, although one might construct an account of the public
services which has that kind of ethos at its centre, in fact it
is not like that but these are monopoly organisations which are
remarkably inattentive to the needs of users; they can be secretive;
they can be bureaucratic; they can protect their backs; they have
minimum accountability. In fact there is a huge gulf between what
you as a philosopher might describe as its ethos which should
necessarily inform public services because they are like they
are, but actually how they have been. One has to try and work
out how that could be.
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I do try to address that
to some extent in the paper by looking at what is called the public
choice critique of bureaucracy, that in fact, to put it fairly
bluntly from this point of view, the public ethos, the public
service ethic, is just a lot of sentimental nonsense really. People
who work in the public sector do not step into a different ethical
realm guided by different moral principles compared with people
who work in markets. Essentially they pursue their self-interest
but they do it without the constraints of facing bankruptcy if
they do not serve the customer. The combination of the self-interest
pursuit of your own goals without the constraint of bankruptcy
yields to a very large expansion of the public sector over a long
time. Public choice thinkers, mainly economists, argue that this
is the best explanation for the growth of the public sector. I
am aware in fact that there is an alternative view. If you take
that public choice approach, then what you are looking at really
is how to bring competition in to the public sector, if you are
going to continue in the public sector as opposed to privatising
it, which would be the ideal thing from a pure public choice approach.
Hence you do bring in the possibility of bankruptcy and so forth,
with firms competing to provide services. They could go bust if
they did not provide the service. That is the ideal from this
perspective. Given that is highly unlikely to happen, then what
you have got to do is to devise all sorts of institutional mechanisms
to try to constrain the self-seeking behaviour of producer interest
groups. Essentially public sector workers, whether they are doctors
or cleaners, are just producer interest groups, on this sort of
view, and what you have got to do then is to devise mechanisms
to constrain the behaviour of self-seeking producer interest groups.
So, yes, I fully accept that what I am saying in relation to public
service ethos or ethic is widely criticised by people of this
persuasion. I come back to the point: it is actually very difficult
to see, if you are not privatising public services, how you can
get rid of these issues of trust. There is very good evidence
for this in the literature: you cannot actually reconstruct the
idea of trust from purely self-interested premises.
84. You have talked a lot about trust but surely
public services over the last 20 years have been failing in that
trust because people are beginning to get jaundiced about it.
If general elections are anything to go by, we have been forewarned
that public services are a disaster. We did not emphathise with
the people from the public services at all, did we?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) Perhaps I should have said
this in opening. I think we need perhaps to dissect a little bit
the idea of trust. There are two sides to it. Trust is usually
at home in the face-to-face relationships. That is where it initially
grows from. It is an idea that members of the family, members
of a small group, trust one another because they know one another,
and so on. There is obviously a question about how far it is reasonable
to characterise the relationships in large-scale organisation
either between people within those organisations or between the
organisation and the client in terms of trust. It might well be
better in the context of large organisations, instead of talking
about trust, to think in terms of people having confidence
in organisationsnot necessarily trusting people in organisations
but having confidence. That confidence can of course be related
very much to things like expertise and delivery, almost irrespective
of whether you have a high degree of trust in the perhaps more
face-to-face sense in the person delivering the service.
85. Is not the word "confidence" more
ethical than "trust"? Have we a two-tier public service
at the moment in health and education where you get enormous imbalances
between the delivery and the provider? You said an interesting
thing, whether or not services are run well or badly. Do you think
they are run well in this country or badly?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I certainly think they could
be run a lot better.
86. You are advocating PFI?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I am in favour of government
funding of public services. I am in favour of involving the best
management techniques we can get our hands on in terms of the
delivery of public services, and if that involves the private
sector managers, then I am not opposed to it.
87. Does that bring us back to trust of the
ability of a private manager to have the rights and best ideals
of public services and that the ethos is the balance between provision
and understanding of the provision? What is the pure public service?
Pure public service is public service. How does the voluntary
service fit into it? There is more confidence in the voluntary
service in a lot of cases, is there not?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) Yes, that is true. I should
declare an interest here because I am President of the National
Council of Voluntary Organisations and what I am about to say
does not reflect NCVO policy.
88. You can be a bit indiscreet. We are very
happy for indiscretions here.
(Lord Plant of Highfield) There are a number of issues
about the relationship between the public sector and the voluntary
sector. First of all, in terms of the ethic or ethos, there are
some differences. Typically people do not have rights to the services
of a charity unless the charityand it would be a bit odd
if they didmade some quasi contractual arrangement with
a group of people that every Thursday evening there will be a
free meal somewhere and then you would have a kind of right to
that meal under the contract. That is not typical, if it happens
at all. Typically people do not have rights or entitlements. The
voluntary sector is not bound by issues of equity, equality of
access and impartiality in administration, mainly because the
whole point of the voluntary sector is that its work is discretionary.
Because no one can do all the voluntary work and activity that
perhaps you feel needs doing, you have got to pick and choose
whether it is an individual or a voluntary organisation about
whose needs we are going to meet you, therefore to meet person
X's needs and not person Y's needs, and that is entirely reasonable.
Whereas in the public sector, if X and Y are in the same situation,
i.e. needing a blood transfusion or whatever it might be, then
you have to be impartial as far as you possibly can between them
and you have to be guided by questions of equality of access and
equity of distribution and so forth. I think there are differences
between the voluntary sector and the public sector largely in
those sorts of terms. In terms of motivation, if you take a very
idealised view of the public sector, as John Edmonds said in evidence,
he would want to say that people take pride in offering a service
to the public. I suppose that is true whether you are in a public
sector or a voluntary sector.
89. But if public services are going in one
way in the eyes of the public, surely the voluntary side should
be going the other way, which is an increase in the ability to
help because more and more people are requiring a service which
they possibly cannot get in the public sector. But then, by doing
that, if you are looking ahead with both your hats on now, are
you then going to undermine the ethos of the public sector worker
who may feel that voluntary bodies are looking at what they are
trying to get on to? I am thinking of hospices and organisations
like that, which are within both sides of the argument. Are they
then going to supercede a lot of things? Are they going to take
away the trust of peopleto use your words?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I think there are issues
on both sides in this relationship. If I could pick up a slightly
different point to start with and then come back to your point.
There are actually dangers, it seems to me, for the voluntary
sector in the voluntary sector getting too close to government
because the sorts of things that government actually values in
the voluntary sector, for example, the volunteering aspect, the
public spirited side of it, the capacity for innovation, the fact
that they do not embody within an organisation the degree of vested
interests that you might find in a public body; all of these things
could be put at risk by an insensitive view of the relationship
between government and the voluntary sector. If the voluntary
sector is more and more signing up to contracts from government,
and if government then wants to have best practice, targets, mission
statements, rules and all of that, which seems fairly likely in
the context of the expenditure of public money, then that could
in fact impose a framework of regulation on the voluntary sector
which would make it much more like the public sector. There are
dangers that way round. From the public sector's point of view,
there are questions about what is the appropriate reach of public
provision. The example you give is a good one of hospices. If
terminally ill people benefit from the sorts of provision that
hospices provide, then why are these not provided by the state
as meeting a basic medical need, if the scope of the public sector
is supposed to be determined in part by need?
90. How by default in the ethos of public service
have we allowed the growth of the voluntary and private PFIs in
this to say "We cannot now stop it"? The pure end of
this is along the lines where there is a core which has to be
kept under public ownership and the rest goes out. As we said
to Richard Wilson last week, "Why do you not give up and
get a manager to run the Civil Service? Would that not be better?"
That is sort of ultimate need. Is that where you are looking?
I am talking about this academically
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I do think that there are
core services which should be provided by the state and funded
by the state and in many cases it seems to me directly provided
by the state. One of the worst experiences, if you like, in terms
of the sense of my own political values, was the fact that in
the early Nineties when I went to the House of Lords I was a Labour
Party Home Affairs spokesman and defended, partly because that
was the party policy at the time and partly because I believed
in it, the ideal that it was immoral to have private prisons.
Then of course my party came to power and became quite keen on
private prisons. There are quite strong economic arguments in
favour of private prisons but I am still wholly opposed to them.
91. You say that and let us take that on, but
you then started this off by talking about trust. Will there be
more trust created by the ability of people to see an end because
you said that quite rightly people do not go into public service
to pick up a reward; they go to become a public servant. Are they
going to get more satisfaction, more long-term feeling that they
are being looked after, by the external people or by home-grown
indigenous people? I am not talking about civil servants but education,
health and other things.
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I would have thought that
the survey, such as I know, would strongly suggest that people
feelI hesitate to saytrust or confidence because
as I have said earlier I think there is a slight difference
92. That is the bit I asked you to start with.
I have not got to the bottom of that.
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I suspect that one way of
interpreting the survey evidence is that people feel more trusting
of public provision than private commercial provision. They are
more confident, to use that contrast, about public provision than
they would be about voluntary provision because you never know
where the gaps are going to be in the voluntary sector. So there
would be a contrast between trust and confidence. You might trust
the voluntary sector in that a voluntary organisation is doing
its best to provide for meeting needs of a particular sort but
because of the fact that it is based on volunteering and so forth,
you cannot be confident that it will always be in a position to
meet those needs. You might trust people very much in the
voluntary sector without being confident that the voluntary
sector can actually do what the state can do. You do not necessarily
trust the private sector because of commercial motives, profit
motives and so forth.
93. Is that not the whole reason that public
services are where they are today by your reasoning and my view,
that there are so many gaps between public, private, voluntary
et cetera that enormous parts of it are dropping in between
and the confidence of the public is terminally damaged?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I suspect that the reform
of the public sector that we are embarking on is going to be absolutely
critical for maintaining anything like we have been used to if
the health service does not actually deliver much better than
it currently is doing. Having some experience of continental health
services in France and Germany, I am aware that there is room
for very vast improvement. I suspect this is the last chance really.
If the health service fails to deliver, then I think much more
radical solutions in the future will be contemplated.
94. My last question comes round full circle.
Then is the ethos of public service in this country completely
wrongly based, if you look at the models of France and Germany
and other European countries?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I do not think it is wrongly
based but I do think that confidence is not what it was. The question
is whether it can be renewed or not. I think the renewal is going
to have to be the result of a whole range of things: increasing
the level of professional skill; increasing orientation towards
the needs of, for want of a better word although I do not like
it in this context, the customer, and much more effective communication.
The one thing that has struck me, having been in a German hospital
not so long ago, is just the rapidity of communication between
one part of the hospital, an X-ray department, and the surgeon
and so forth, whereas here it seems to take a vast bureaucratic
machine to get the results of an X-ray from one part of the hospital
to the other. I am sure there are vast areas in which there can
be big improvements in the management of hospitals and the public
sector generally. I do think that there is still a degree of confidence/trust
that we would be very unwise to ignore and what we should be doing
is trying to improve on that, not by saying, "Oh, well, we
have got to have a completely different radical approach to privatising
services in a much more commercial sense".
95. I want to talk about the third way and how
it fits into all this. I was interested in what you were saying
about trust and, of course, last year and the year before there
were huge convulsions in the Labour Party and some thought that
we might privatise air traffic control, but apparently there is
a third way: we can hand it over to the private sector but they
will not make profits. Is it possible for the public service ethos
to survive in air traffic control which is configured in this
(Lord Plant of Highfield) Could I just generalise
the question a bit because I do not know that much about it. Obviously
it has been debated in both Houses, so I know that amount about
air traffic control, but I would not at all pretend to be an expert
on the details of it. I think the question about whether not-for-profit
companies or organisations can take over the delivery of public
services is an interesting one. The question whether it does raise
questions of ethos, ethics, trust and so forth is fairly crucial
because it seems to me that you are going eventually to replicate,
at least in the dimensions that we are talking about this morning,
many of the issues to do with conventionally delivered public
services through large-scale bureaucracies. If government is fundingand
I know it is not entirely the case in air traffic controland
if government is contracting with companies or organisations on
a not-for-profit basis, then this is still public money that is
being expended. I find it very difficult to believe that you ought
not then to start down the path, and you obviously would start
down the path, of targets, bench marking, disseminating best practice,
and so on and so forth, under some degree of central framework
and central targets and all the rest of it that we have in the
public sector as it is. You will just have these companies acting
as providers of services to meet the centrally-defined targets.
I think then it is not clear to me that this is vastly different
from trying to devolve responsibility down much more within the
existing public sector. The whole point for a kind of public choice
critique of the public sector ethos is that it really the only
way of constraining bureaucratic behaviour is to make some people
subject to bankruptcy, and can you actually do that in a not-for-profit
organisation? You have got to harness the impetus towards self-interest
but it has got to be done in a way that is subject to bankruptcy.
Will a not-for-profit organisation harness self-interest enough
because it is not for profit? Will it be allowed to go bankrupt,
given that it is delivering a service to which people believe
they have a right or an entitlement? Will the government not ultimately
have to bail them out, even if they do very badly in marketing
96. Let me put my question another way. For
Joe Public, a member of the travelling public, is he or she going
to feel less trust in the new Railtrack which will be reconfigured,
we think, as a not-for-profit company, or less trust in air traffic
control once it gets off the ground? Clearly that is what we are
talking about, not some abstract idea of trust that political
philosophers grapple with, but what the ordinary member of the
public feels when he or she gets on to a plane or on to a train.
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I am sorry to take an abstract
view of this but it goes back to the question of confidence perhaps
rather than trust. If the public sector is segmented into a series
of different not-for-profit organisations, so that health care
becomes delivered by a whole range of not-for-profit bodies like
Railtrack might be for railways or whatever, then I think people
could have confidence if, first of all, it covered the whole range
of needs that currently the health service covers so that there
would not be gaps. Such a company could not say, "Well, it
is not commercially viable for us to deliver varicose vein operations
in Bromley or something and we are not going to do that".
You would have to have confidence that they were covering the
waterfront and therefore, because it was to that degree a private
sector company, you were not creating gaps in provision, and that
individuals would still have not only confidence in the range
of services but also confidence in their entitlement to the delivery
of those services. What seems to be fairly crucial to the whole
thing is that if a company delivering those services were to fail,
then the Government would step in. Of course, that is the crucial
counter-argument of the sort of hard-nosed, public choice, new
right thinker who will say, "If the Government is going to
bail them out if they do not work properly, then these are not
going to be solutions to the problem because the problem is essentially
that of self-interested bureaucracies not being accountable to
the public. But if these new companies, the not-for-profit companies,
fail because they are not meeting the needs of the customer, nevertheless
the government has got to be there to bail them out because you
cannot have people dying because they are not getting their operations
or what have you then for a new right public choice thinker this
would not be the solution".
97. I understand: where there is universal provision,
the government has got to step in?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) Yes.
98. This is what Tony Blair was to have said
at the TUC Congress on 11 September. He would have said that this
is the principle of reform in the public service, that he wanted
to see more choice for the pupil, more choice for the patient,
for the customer, and the ability, if provision is poor, to have
an alternative provider. Is it possible to have a public service
ethos in situations where there is alongside some other provider?
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I think ethos in terms of
trust would be quite difficult because it would then mean that
there was another provider who, if providing those services properly,
would then show that you could actually meet these needs without
the public service ethos as I have described it. It would still
leave open the question of what I call confidence. I think this
idea of confidence is closely connected to the idea of predictability.
You know that there will be somebody there to meet your needs
and, if you have another provider alongside the public sector
as understood in the orthodox way, then I do not see that that
would affect confidence because you would have confidence that
there was another provider alongside the public sector as well.
I think though it might affect trust in the sense that I have
99. This is what the Prime Minister wanted to
say at the time.
(Lord Plant of Highfield) I think it could erode the
idea of trust that I have outlined. I do not know that it would
necessarily erode the idea of confidence. It would be a bit paradoxical
if it undermined confidence because the whole point the Prime
Minister is making is that where the public service is failing,
then we ought to have another form of provision coming in to make
people feel confident that their needs can be met, whether by
the public or voluntary sector as we currently have it or by some
other provider, voluntary or commercial.