Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 369-379)




  369. Could I welcome our witnesses, on behalf of the Committee. It is very kind of you to come along. We are welcoming Sir Steve Robson, former Second Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, Jonathan Baume, General Secretary of the First Division Association, Bill Morris cannot be with us, as it happens, but we have got Jack Dromey, who is the National Organiser of the TGWU. So thank you very much indeed, all of you, for coming along. I do not think any of you want to say anything, to kick off, so perhaps we will just be away. I think you know the areas that we are interested in here, looking widely at public service reform issues and things that will relate to it. Could I just kick off by looking at one area that we are trying to clear our minds about, to start with, which is this business about public service ethos and all that, and whether it exists, and if it does what does it look like, and what might we do with it. I may be wrong, but I take it that Steve Robson takes a fairly dim view of this. I have been looking at some of the stuff you have been writing, and you say, for example, that "the public sector is a collection of monopoly providers, which tend to put the interests of the providers above the interests of the users." Now that does not seem, to me, to be at all consistent with the idea of the public service ethos at work; is that right?

  (Sir Steven Robson) Yes. I have worked in the public sector for over 30 years, it dismays me whenever I say that, but it is true, and I cannot say that in that time I ever came across anything that seemed to me to represent a public sector ethos, although I have to say that when people use that phrase they are usually very unclear about what they think it means. But if one tests it against a proposition, do people work harder or better in the public sector, or in some sense more selflessly or are more dedicated than people in other parts of the economy, I do not think they do. There are a lot of people in the public sector who work very hard, who like their jobs and put a lot into it, but the same is equally true, in my experience, of people in the private sector too. If you look at the Nolan characteristics that he desired of the public sector, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership, those are characteristics which, in my experience, are displayed as much in the private sector as in the public sector. In my view, the public sector ethos is a bit of a fantasy, it is rather like middle-aged men, who fantasise that beautiful, young women find them very attractive.

  370. Steady on, now, this is getting a bit close to home.
  (Sir Steven Robson) It is like it in the sense that that is a very reassuring and comforting fantasy to have, but it remains a fantasy. And if middle-aged men act on the basis of that fantasy as a reality, the outcome is usually very unhappy for them; and I think the public sector ethos has very many similarities with that.

  371. That is our text for the day, I think. There we are, there we have it said; although I can see you want to respond?
  (Mr Dromey) Firstly, can I declare an interest, I suffer from no such delusions. And can I also then make this starting-point, which is, we accept, without hesitation, that it is the public interest that comes first. Now we are not fans of old-style producerism, not least because our experience historically was that old-style producerism not only let the community down, it also let down the great bulk of producers who suffered from what was a low-wage, low-productivity culture and discrimination against both manual workers and women. Now, having said that, I think there are four substantive points that I would make, in terms of what is a public service ethos and how you define it. First of all, our whole experience is of members for whom it is not just any old job, it is that preparedness to go the extra mile, and it is also not just about the front line, the nurses and the doctors, it is about, for example, in a hospital, the wider and caring team, including ancillaries who clean wards. As somebody who had an operation just two and a half weeks ago, I can testify to how they make a remarkable contribution towards a caring atmosphere, crucial to the recovery of patients; it is intangible but it is intense. Secondly, there are wider issues; it is not just about delivery of service, it is also about accountability, accountability to elected politicians, but accountability also to the community. Our experience is that, frequently, contracts are a bar to the making of variations when the community wants more or different. Thirdly, it is about transparency and openness, and not a culture whereby problems are cloaked by commercial in confidence. And fourth, and finally, it is about the primacy of public interest, something we accept without hesitation, the primacy of public interest, and it is the primacy of public interest over the interests of shareholders.

  372. So there we are; thank you very much. We have got the proposition that it is a fantasy, countered by the statement that it is a reality, with these ingredients; now, Jonathan, which of these is true?
  (Mr Baume) It will not surprise you to know that I agree with my colleague Jack Dromey here. I will not say much more, because I think we have had two quite clear expositions of alternative cases. Certainly, the FDA view is that it is hard to define; we once spent a very long evening trying to work out a definition of it, and, frankly, failed, I will be honest about that. And I did, in the FDA evidence, draw attention to some work that I saw recently by Professor Raymond Plant I happened to come across this because I was invited to the seminar that Professor Plant delivered, and a very long and very erudite paper highlighted the difficulty of defining it and pinning it down. All of that said, it does exist, and is internalised by a great many public servants, it is something that actually motivates. Many of the people that we represent are people who could easily double their salaries; we represent senior tax inspectors, I actually know, occasionally, that people have gone out and quadrupled salaries by leaving the Inland Revenue and going to work for the private sector. I am sure Sir Steve knows many colleagues in the Treasury who are in a similar position to be able to do that; and people do not. And part of the reason that people do not is a very strong ethos of public service. They have taken a decision at a very early stage in their lives to join the public services, not because these were the only jobs that were available, or problems in the local community, or anything like that, but because this is a concept that they actually believe in. It is hard to define, but it is there, and the country would suffer enormously, in my view, if that ethos of serving the public were in any way undermined. That does not mean that it is exclusive to the public sector, and I think Jack highlighted that there are a number of facets to this, including, clearly, accountability. It is a difficult construct to define; but those internalised values, I think, are very important, and what actually motivate, in many ways, public servants to do the job they do, in often very difficult circumstances. I have one other slightly tabloid-type point. We were conscious, over the summer, we have all been very conscious, that there is a debate going on about the public services, in the widest sense, and we were quite concerned at times by statements by Ministers, that appeared just before and after the general election. Now, thankfully, a lot of that has calmed down. I think there was a reflection, in my view, on the part of Ministers and the Government about some of the statements it was making. But, I think, when you actually looked at what happened in New York, on September 11, and people saw, when the crisis came, it was public service workers who were actually in there, working day after day, and I think it reminded people of just what public servants deliver in this country. Just as if you go round Whitehall, even now, a couple of months after the horror of September 11, people working late into the evenings, into the night, in many Government Departments, supporting the Government, because that is their job; and they do it not for money, not because they are going to get paid overtime if they work beyond 5.30, but because they are dedicated to serving the Government, dedicated to the national interest. And that is an important value that we should not underestimate.

  373. Thank you for that. Let me just ask a further question then. Because, if we have contrary views about whether there is this public service ethos, and, if there is, what it consists of, and we have a rather bleak view and a rather positive view, the next question will be, well, how do we find out which of these is true, how do we test it. And I would put it to those of you who are enthusiasts for it, the view that, actually, despite September 11 and people's view of the emergency services, on the whole, people have got a fairly negative view of public servants and public services, which is why we have got the problem that we have got now, and, indeed, there is probably evidence to suggest that they find them faceless, bureaucratic, removed, unhelpful, not these people who go the extra mile. So does not this make the fantasy case?
  (Mr Baume) One could be rather cheeky and say that I think last time I saw an opinion poll, civil servants came above politicians, but; yes, people have a concept, probably even those of us who work in the public services at times find aspects of local government or aspects of central government frustrating, and I think many civil servants, representing as I do predominantly civil servants, find some of the procedures and the ways that they have to work frustrating and demoralising. But if you ask people about the commitment, they may be critical of aspects of the local school, but if you ask them about the dedication of the local teachers, if you ask people about the dedication of nurses, and other key public service workers, who interact directly, I think you get a very different opinion. I think people actually value those services and value the individuals working in those services very highly, and knowing as well that many of them are relatively low-paid workers.

  374. But, if people who work in public services are imbued with this ethos, and if they are as Jack Dromey describes them, which is that they are the "go the extra mile" people, why then did we not just want to leave public services alone, if that was what they were like, why did we have to start denouncing producer interests, as you were doing, if, in fact, this is how they are?
  (Mr Dromey) We will not defend the status quo, because the status quo is not good enough.

  375. No, but if the status quo is intrinsically governed by people who go the extra mile and are as you describe them, why on earth do you want to reform them?
  (Mr Dromey) What Government should not do is to make a series of mistakes. First of all, it was Lenin and Nicholas Ridley who both wanted the state to wither away. There are serious implications of a contract state. Secondly, following on from that, and something that we would be very keen to explore with you, there are some very important, wider public interest reasons that require to be taken properly into account, so that you do not have a narrow focus on what works best but instead look at the wider and longer-term public interests issues, which crucially require to be taken account of. Thirdly, what you do not do is to make some of what we would call the first term mistakes, which was to set a negative tone about the public sector; it was a lead figure in the private sector, incidentally, who once said, "I've never known yet a successful enterprise build its success on the back of always telling its people how bad they are". There was a remorselessly negative tone, for example, from central government about local government. Fourthly, what you do not do, and this is a mistake in my view still being made, is to have a ludicrously overprescriptive approach. You can be demanding nationally, again, take local government, but outcomes are best found locally; and, fifthly, what you do not do is to make the mistake of being infatuated with the private sector. I remember being in a discussion with ten leading figures from the private sector and saying to them that, "I think that the Government's problem is that it bestows magical qualities upon you, and that it can't tell the difference between the worthwhile and the worthless." And do you know what the first story told was, in what was a fascinating discussion, which went on for two hours, it was by a leading chief executive, who necessarily must remain nameless, who said, "You're absolutely right;" he said, "My experience of dealing with Government is that, all too often, I am engaged in dialogue with born-again capitalists in short trousers who can't tell the difference between the worthwhile and the worthless." So, in positive terms, what we have been trying to do is to focus the debate back on where it should be, which is, if it is right that public services are not what they should be, they vary in their quality, crucially, what does that then mean in terms of a public service excellence agenda and improvement agenda; very serious issues, which range from, on the one hand, what that means in terms of a serious people agenda, because I do not think the people issues have sufficient centrality in the debate about how you renew public services, to, on the other hand, issues like change management. And so what we need to do is to get away from the rather difficult debate that has been going on, for everyone to acknowledge that there is a problem in terms of the quality of public services, for everyone not to make silly mistakes that derail the debate, but then concentrate on what is important, in terms of improving the services that our members provide. And we are up for that.

  376. Before I hand over, let us just move that into one other area then, which flows naturally from this. You mentioned Lenin. Now Steve Robson is a Leninist, he wants to smash the state, as we know, he thinks it is a great monopolist and the only way to get improvement is to break it up. It is averse to change, got to bring the private sector in, shake the whole thing around; that, in a nutshell, I take it, is what your position is?
  (Sir Steven Robson) It is a slightly odd shape from that. My position is that there are a lot of people who work hard, in a very dedicated way, in the public sector, but they are working in an environment which does not enable them to do their best and to produce the right outcomes. And the main problems with that environment seem to me to be a lack of clarity about objectives, the wrong sort of incentives and inadequacies in management; and I think that part of the way one goes about curing that is to produce greater diversity in the way that public services are provided.

Brian White

  377. But you set those from the Treasury?
  (Sir Steven Robson) Set what?

  378. You set those rules from the Treasury?
  (Sir Steven Robson) Which rules are you talking about?

  379. About defining contracts, defining the way local government works, defining the way Departments work, that was with Treasury Rules setting out exactly what they have got to do, and the centralising came from you?
  (Sir Steven Robson) I was not talking about centralising. What I was saying was, the objectives are not clear, by which I mean there are usually far too many objectives bearing down on organisations and individuals, but the incentives are wrong, by which I mean there is fundamentally a blame culture, which makes people risk-averse, and there are inadequacies in management, that people who are in management positions, and I include myself, in my past incarnation, in this, did not have the management skills to do the job they were asked to do. It is not about rules, it is very much about management and incentives.

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