Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 79-99)




  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 paper—it is a bit long and arcane—but 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 trust—and I am not saying that there are very strong arguments for this but it is a fact for the moment—because 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 exist.
  (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.

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  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 organisations—not 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 charity—and it would be a bit odd if they did—made 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 people—to 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 feel—I hesitate to say—trust 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".

Mr Prentice

  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 new way?
  (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 funding—and I know it is not entirely the case in air traffic control—and 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 terms?

  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 described it.

  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.

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