Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 443-459)




  443. Could I welcome the two witnesses. I am sorry about the delay. I am afraid this happens often in the second half of sessions, but it is very good to have you along from the New Local Government Network, Professor Gerry Stoker, who chairs it, and John Williams, who is Executive Director. Thank you very much for your most interesting paper to us, too. Would you like to comment, just briefly, by way of introduction, or shall we just fire off at you?

  (Mr Williams) Thanks very much. Is it worth just saying, certainly looking at the list of luminaries that you have had presenting evidence so far I do not quite fall into that camp, so I wondered whether it was worth, just very briefly, saying a little bit about who we are and what we do. The New Local Government Network was set up in 1996 by a leading group of academics, politicians, practitioners, to champion a radical reform agenda in local government. We focus on three broad areas; one, the renewal of local democracy, two, the transformation of public services, and, three, the empowerment of local communities. And I suppose what is a little bit different about us is not only do we operate as a think tank but also as a do tank, in effect, we are trying to promote change actively within local government and get some messages across to central government as well.

  444. Thank you very much for that, again. In a nutshell, just tell us why we cannot go on as we are?
  (Mr Williams) I think there is no doubt that, in the last 20 years in particular, the public have experienced a level of service, in a variety of different forms, one could say, to give you an example of NHS Direct, in the last few years, which I think has transformed people's access and experience of public service at that particular point. Or, in the private sector, where now, if you have got the desire, you can go and get your marmalade at four o'clock in the morning, or you can go and check your bank account at three o'clock in the morning. This sort of radical transformation of our experience and access of services, in some parts of both the public and the private sectors, has raised expectations enormously about what the public should demand. And I think there has been an increasing consumerisation, I suppose, of public services. And so I think, now, people are looking for a radical transformation. Technology, in particular, I think, provides real opportunities to do things in a very different way, and it is very important that public service, if it is to remain central to people's experiences and people's lives, and, as the Prime Minister said, it is social justice in action, if they are to operate effectively, then they also need to radically change and perform to live up to people's expectations today.

  445. Is there a danger of throwing babies out with bath waters, do you think?
  (Mr Williams) In what sense?

  446. In neglecting what is essential about public services, in a sort of "gee whizz" approach to them, and that falls in love with the private sector and thinks that there is a world out there which is so much better and different, and if only we could import that world into this world then all would be well?
  (Mr Williams) I do not think anybody would, I certainly would not, argue for that. I think the main arguments that we have been making are that it is really important, whether it is in the public or the private sector, that there is real contestability in the delivery of service, there is real choice for the consumer, both in public services, both in private services, as well, and that is what is important. So I do not think it is a question of throwing the baby out with the bath water, we have got to be pretty imaginative about the solutions that we are looking for in the future if we are to meet the expectations and needs of the public.

  447. Let me ask the question I asked Steve Robson. If that is the model, contestability, choice, and I know it is not your particular province, but the argument is a general one, how would that work in relation to the Health Service?
  (Mr Williams) Obviously, there are examples abroad where, very simply, you can choose which GP you want to go and see; and I do not think there is an ingrained culture within our own public services that responds to and provides choice to the needs of those individual consumers. There really is, I think, a sense of you get what is given to you. And, often, I think, in our own public services, and health is as good an example as any other, that is provided for at a relatively cheap unit cost, compared with other services around the world, but what that means is, I think, that is often at the expense of choice and diversity of suppliers.

  448. We can choose our GPs now, if their lists are not full, we can choose any GP we like, so that is already there?
  (Mr Williams) But it does not operate; people do not do that.

  449. No, but the choice is there.
  (Mr Williams) But people do not exercise that choice.

  Chairman: Some people do, I do, you do.

  Mr Wright: That is what it is all about, it is choice.


  450. What I am interested in is how you apply; the model sounds absolutely wonderful, we are all in favour of choice, all in favour of contestability, all in favour of competition, but then we have to say, well, tell us then, in relation to one of the most pressing issues that we have got, which is how do we change the Health Service, what would that mean, what would we do?
  (Professor Stoker) Could I try to provide some additional elements to an answer, which is that, I think, within the National Health Service, we are beginning to see some of the elements of contestability coming almost within the public sector by the publication of differential performance information, so that people are more aware of the levels of performance achieved both by individual hospitals and also by individual doctors. And that, I think, is something which, in itself, because it provides information which then can lead to challenge, can lead to improvements in performance, because those that presumably are not doing so well have to ask themselves why that is the case. In relation to choice, in terms of access to medical services, I think you are absolutely right, that at the moment you can choose your GP, although I think that it is probably equally true that most people choose not to exercise that choice; and people can, to an extent, choose who their surgeon is, as well, especially I think, if they are middle class and articulate, they can, I think, often try to work the system in order to get access to the surgeon that they would prefer. I think that what we are talking about, in the case of the National Health Service, is a gradual extension of those principles, not an overnight change from one way of operating to another. But I think, as you are suggesting, you are already beginning to see those principles being worked out within the NHS.

  451. It is the movement from the general concepts to the practical implementation in a way that will do more good than harm is the problem that I think we have to get our minds around. But can I just ask you about this public service ethos that we are interested in, and whether you think that this is part of what we have to ditch in the new order. In your evidence, you describe it as an `aspirational concept'; does this mean that it does not exist now, but we should aspire to create it?
  (Professor Stoker) I think my reaction is that, if we look at the available research evidence about what motivates people when they work in the public sector, what it reveals is quite a complex mix of motivations, some connected to enjoyment in the job, some connected to a sense that they are doing something worthwhile, some connected to the level of reward that they receive, and the sense that they have a job that might be sustainable over a period of time. So, in other words, the motivation is really quite mixed at the moment, and I find it quite difficult to say that there is enough evidence out there to say that, somehow or other, people in the public sector are distinctively differently motivated. But what I think is important and why I think people are concerned about the idea of an ethos is that I think that when a public service is involved, and what I would argue for is a public service ethos, rather than a public sector ethos, when anyone is involved in providing a public service, I think there is a set of both ethical and moral requirements that we should put down to them, and those are outlined in the paper, I think that they should treat citizens and taxpayers with the respect that they are due. I think that they should make themselves available to a much fuller extent of accountability than perhaps you would within the private sector alone, and I think that they should also be prepared to make an overarching, joined-up contribution to effective government. So I think that, in other words, what we should do is try to actually request of people, who are involved in public service, that they pursue a set of moral and value objectives which I would regard as at the essence of what a public service is. In a way, it fits in with the broader pitch of our submission, which is, we have got to get beyond the formula of `what works is what matters', because it is not simply a question of making that judgement, there are values involved in here, and I think we should be clear about what those values are.

  452. And that is a very interesting answer. This constellation of values that you describe, you think is not to be found if private sector organisations are involved?
  (Professor Stoker) Oh, no, I think that that constellation of values are the values that we should expect of a public service, because a public service is, to a large extent, funded from either taxpayers" money or partially, at least, from taxpayers" money; a public service has, in certain ways, responsibilities to provide for the whole range of consumers, rather than an individual batch of consumers. We do not necessarily demand that Marks & Spencer provide services to everyone, but we would demand that the NHS provides services to everyone. So I think that as soon as we are talking about something that is a public service then I think that we have the right to expect these ethical values to be reflected in the way that they work and operate.

  453. So, if private sector organisations come in, they have to buy into public service values?
  (Professor Stoker) Yes. I feel that very strongly, that they should actually be signing up to this same public services ethos that I have just outlined.

  454. But, in principle, from your point of view, it does not really matter who actually runs services, does it?
  (Professor Stoker) No. What I clearly sign up to is a distinction that a lot of people sign up to, which is, it does matter who procures the service, and I want those to be democratically elected and accountable; but, who provides the service, I am relatively relaxed about.

  455. That is what I meant by running it; you think this is immaterial to the public and it is immaterial to you?
  (Professor Stoker) Yes.

Mr Prentice

  456. We heard from Steve Robson earlier, and it seemed, to me, anyway, that he was lionising the private sector, but maybe was just exaggerating to make a point; but let me ask you this. In America, the private security guards at airports are being brought into the federal payroll; were you surprised that the American President was prepared to do this?
  (Professor Stoker) I am aware, I think, rather than surprised, would be my immediate reaction. And my broader response is that, in a way, what I am arguing for is not the lionisation of either the public or the private sector, what I am arguing for is the lionisation of a commitment to contestability and choice in the way that we both look at public services, and particularly at the way that we procure public services, that is what I want to lionise. And I am happy to accept there are, in those instances, examples where it would be better for the public sector employees to do it, and in other instances where it would not matter whether the public sector employees did it or not. Equally, I am happy to accept that the private sector institutions do not always perform wonderfully well, some of them perform badly; equally, "not for profit" organisations sometimes perform well but not particularly all the time. So the crucial thing is to have contestability and choice for the procurement process.

  457. I read your paper with great interest, and in the concluding paragraphs you refer to the New Labour mantra, `what matters is what works', but it seems to me that you feel the Government, or the Prime Minister, has not given enough definition to what is in its collective mind how it wants to see the public services transformed; is that a valid criticism?
  (Professor Stoker) Yes, it is.
  (Mr Williams) I think, after the election, and during the election, we all witnessed a real ratcheting-up of the rhetoric about the role of the private sector in the delivery of public services, but I think it became pretty clear, within a matter of days and weeks, that we were not entirely sure what that would mean in reality. And often people think, "well, there is some hidden plan, somewhere, in the bottom of a drawer," and there was never any hidden plan, I do not think, that this Government had about the role of the private sector in public services. I think what it was trying to do, and what it has been trying to do for the past four years, in some ways, is to demonstrate that it can challenge the public sector to improve, and it will do whatever it takes to bring about the reform of public services. Where we have difficulty with a sort of `what matters is what works' approach is, firstly, well, you never quite know what is going to work, sometimes you have to take risks, sometimes you have to try new things, but, also, as Gerry indicated, you have to have a constellation of values that come together that give you, and give others, particularly within the public sector, a sense of what it is you are trying to achieve. If you are not clear about what you are trying to achieve, you are not clear about where you want to get to, then I think that breeds an enormous amount of uncertainty, both in terms of the private sector and also for those employees who are in the public sector as well.

  458. Are you telling me that the Prime Minister does not have a kind of ideological sheet-anchor, that he just blows hither and thither, he does not have a clear idea in his own mind? You mentioned consumerism, I must give you an opportunity to answer the questions, but you mentioned consumerism, and Philip Gould famously said that "the New Labour brand has become contaminated." And I just wonder, in the Prime Minister's mind, if the public sector brand had become contaminated in some way, and something had to be done?
  (Mr Williams) I think, obviously, the Prime Minister can put his own case best.

  459. He will not come here.
  (Mr Williams) He will not come; dear, oh dear. I certainly would not want to answer on his behalf. I just think what we have been missing and the Government is missing is a clearer vision of what it is trying to achieve with public service reform, and the role of the private sector in that. For example, some of the reforms in the last two or three years, take, for example, in education, have been driven by a deficit model of the role of the private sector in public services, "if it is working out terribly badly then we'll turn to the private sector in a sort of Rea Adair style, in you come, sort it out, and probably get back out again, and everything would be rosy." And you can see that even, as I am sure that will happen, even in the publication of the "Local Government" White Paper, you will see similar sorts of moves. Whereas, I think, from our perspective, looking at how local government has developed in the last ten, five years, in particular, since the introduction of, say, the Best Value regime, there has been a much more voluntary attempt, on behalf of the public sector, to think about working with a mixed range of providers, private sector providers and voluntary sector providers, in order to achieve the outcomes that they want, not just on the basis of a deficit model. And I think the sort of lack of clear messages that are sent out from central government probably just reflect and underline a lack of clarity about what it is trying to achieve with the role of the private sector in public services.

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