Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (PSR 21)

  The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham welcomes this inquiry into important aspects of the Government's programme of public service reform. This memorandum of evidence primarily addresses that part of the Select Committee's issues paper covering the concept of a public service ethos, and the involvement of the private sector, (questions 6-18).

Question 6: Is the concept of public service an anachronism?

  The Council would argue definitely no. An ethos of unself-interested, impartial dealing with people, in a working environment in which decisions are not motivated by commercial profit, remains important to the successful delivery of public services.

  The Council believes that dealings between local government and the public, often involving the allocation of resources and the application of rules and procedures, should be carried out in an organisational culture underpinned by principles of fairness, equity, probity, professional ethics, and a wider "public good", rather than a culture of corporate commercial gain. It also believes that it remains essential to a relationship of trust between citizen and the state that the public should perceive such principles and motivations to be at the core of the actions and day to day decisions of the majority of public servants.

Questions 7 and 8: Is there a public service ethos and how can it be defined? How is the public service ethos different from the private (or voluntary sector) ethos?

  While the public service ethos may seem an abstract concept, difficult to define and measure with any precision, there is a body of evidence from research and attitudinal surveys in the public and private sectors that show firstly that it exists, and secondly that it remains a highly relevant consideration in the effective delivery of public services.

  Research carried out in 1994 for the Commission for Local Democracy and ICSA (1) explored the extent to which there was any historical evidence of a clear public sector ethos in local government, or whether this concept had only " mythical" status and reflected no more than a recent construct designed to protect professional or institutional interests.

  The research based on fieldwork in four local authorities, concluded that "there were certain deep rooted values that underpin the culture of local government and inform the day-to-day activities of those employed in it".

  The conclusions of the study were that while such values may remain ill-defined and confused on some occasions, and that talk of their "erosion" in the early 1990s was probably overplayed, they remained important to the motivations and attitudes of employees. Looking forwards, the key features of the local government ethos perceived as emerging at that time were that it "emphasises a competitive, contractual, insular, and adversarial culture" which would "gradually compound the divisive elements of the new local government, leading to a disintegrated and disunited range of local services".

  While not participating in this particular research, the Borough Council shared many of its concerns and conclusions, and in 1995/6 participated in an extensive piece of academic research on responsibility, accountability, and ethics in large organisations (2). This was a comparative attitudinal survey of eight organisations, including a water company (privatised in 1989), two local authorities, an accountancy firm, a clearing bank, a Government Next Steps agency, an airline and a large public sector union.

  The study examined moral and ethical behaviour of employees in these organisations, through structured interviews with staff at all levels.

  The conclusions of the study were that staff were very conscious of the ethical and moral climate in which they worked and that the ethics of organisations are inextricably linked with the ethical experience of their employees. In dealing with work-related moral dilemmas, relating to how service users or customers should be treated, or rules interpreted, or internal employee relations issues resolved, the research also identified a number of characteristics of the "moral organisation".

  Issue of staff motivation, and of wanting to "do the best for people", affected day to day job decisions at all levels of the organisation from front-line staff to senior managers.

  There was some evidence from this comparative study that organisations attract workers who share the organisational values and ethos of their employers, and that participants in the surveys who liked "helping others", and who held equality and justice as their salient beliefs, were by and large working in public rather than private sector organisations.

  This corresponds with the council's view that in terms of attracting, recruiting and retaining staff, it is becoming increasingly important for local authorities to demonstrate their organisational values and their ethos. Amongst successful local authorities are those who can recruit and retain staff whose professional skills and expertise would often earn them significantly higher salaries in the private sector (particularly in professions such as legal services, IT, engineering, accountancy), but who choose to work in local government not least because of the moral dimension of working for an organisation underpinned by concepts of public good as compared with private gain.

  These issues were explored by MORI and the Public Management Foundation in their 1996 publication (3). The extensive database of employee surveys held by MORI continues to show that within the public sector, work interest is placed first in priority, above pay. It is less clear to what extent "work interest" applies simply to variety in content of work, or to the underlying themes of moral and social responsibility in which many public servants find satisfaction.

  Based on its own experience over the past decade, and feedback from internal staff attitudinal surveys, the Councils remains firmly of the view that public service values are important in defining overall organisational culture. Hence the council promotes to its staff and its public a broad public service ethos, emphasising an outward-looking, open and co-operative approach to the delivery of services, working with partner agencies and freely sharing knowledge and best practice in a way that was beginning to disappear in the quasi-commercialised management culture encouraged in local government in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

  These principles are reinforced through staff development and training, and the staff values encouraged through an authority-wide Investors in People programme.

Is the public service ethos necessarily a good thing? Can it be an obstacle to the effective delivery of services to the public? (Question 9)

  In terms of the current national debate on public service reform and "what works", the Council has long believed that the motivations and values of its staff, at all levels within the workforce, remains a crucial ingredient in its overall task of delivering high quality public services. As noted by the chairman of the Public Management Foundation in its 1996 report (3) "public services are there not only to serve the customer well, but also to produce social results which go beyond political expediency, financial efficiency, and customer satisfaction. Public services—whether or not organised under state ownership—produce public benefits that are not always calculable within the mathematics of a mixed economy. An educated workforce, a safer community, a healthier population are not outcomes to which we can easily assign measurable values".

  In developing its own capacity and performance over the past decade, as a leading modernising inner London Borough, the Council has always aimed to achieve this broader "added value" to service delivery, arguing that the whole is more than the sum of the parts when it comes to providing community leadership and good governance, over and above the delivery of good quality services.

  This has not always been a position supported by central government, nor a view fashionable amongst proponents of the "New Public Management". Throughout the early 1990s, the Council argued strenuously against the then prevailing concepts of the "enabling" local authority, and pursued a model of the "cohesive" and governance-led council, in which neither services nor values were fragmented or dissipated.

  In written evidence to the 1995-6 Select Committee on Relations between Central and Local Government (4) the Council highlighted its perception of the way in which contractual and quasi-contractual relationships and the business unit model, as mechanisms for delivering public services, were eroding ethical values within public services and diminishing the added value that cohesive local government can provide.

  In written and oral evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life (5), the Council spelt out the difficulties, under the then statutory regime of the 1980 and 1998 Local Government Acts, of continuing to ensure high and consistent standards of ethics and probity in a climate when local authorities were under increasing expectations to operate a hybrid combination of services, delivered through public and private workforces. The Council also drew attention to the way that the growing focus on private sector management techniques and the merits of internal trading were diverting the attention of employees from a focus on public service ethos and public service standards, towards forms of quasi-commercialisation of less relevance to public service delivery.

  Chapter 5 of the Committee's Third Report (6), which will be familiar to the Select Committee, explores these issues.

  Since the mid 1990's there has been a renewed recognition of the risks of erosion of high standards with public life, leading to the new ethical framework for local government in the Local Government Act 2000, new model codes for employees and councillors, the clear direction from the Local Government Ombudsman that private sector providers of public services remain accountable for their actions, and the widespread introduction of `whistleblowing' procedures in local councils. The Council has welcomed this shift in thinking, and has actively implemented this agenda locally.

  As to whether the public service ethos can be an obstacle, it has long been held in some quarters that public sector bureaucracies are inherently inefficient, as compared with private sector organisations, and that the public sector ethos can `get in the way' of cost-effective service delivery, and the modernisation and overhaul of public services. A more cynical view is that the very concept of a public service ethos is designed to protect interests rather than deliver good government.

  At the point of service delivery, it can certainly be the case that public service employees may make different judgements as to how they apply their time and energies, in how they deal with day to day service issues, than their private sector counterparts. The research instanced above demonstrated to the Council the thinking and motivations of its employees, in a variety of situations, and raised issues about the balance between what would be seen as `commercial efficiency' as opposed to the achievement of wider social goals and the public good.

  In the situation of a Housing Benefit officer processing a complex housing benefit claim, the dilemma faced may be whether to spend an extra 15 minutes resolving a given problem, or to set the file aside and move on to the next. For the public sector employee, the factors influencing and motivating his or her judgements and decisions will be various—the daily pressures to get the job done, the expectations of his/her line manager, targets for the section to deliver. But there will also be countervailing pressures against rushing the task, which may include an awareness that the council will be at risk of a maladministration claim if the calculations are not done correctly, a sense of accountability to a ward councillor will have an unhappy tenant on their doorstep, and ultimately an innate sense that as a public servant the over-riding goal of a day's work is to deliver the `right' outcome, in terms of social equity as well as arithmetical accuracy, even though this may take a little longer.

  A question the committee may wish to explore with witnesses from the private sector is the extent to which the employee of a private company, undertaking the same task, will be acting from an identical set of motivations and pressures, or will also be influenced by commercial imperatives to process claims in a manner that can guarantee predefined profit targets and shareholder expectations.

  The actions of the former employee may well be inefficient, in the commercial sense, but are they ineffective? While those major private sector companies now involved in delivering housing benefit services may improve their track record over time, experience in recent years (at least in London) suggests that delivering complex public services through the private sector can lead to systemic failures, and consequent direct suffering and indirect detriment for tenants, landlords, housing associations, local authorities and others, on a scale unprecedented to date in British public administration.

  The issue here is whether it has simply been the mechanics of specific contractual and outsourcing arrangements that have been at fault, or whether there are deeper and more complex issues of employee motivation, attitude, accountability and responsibility which have affected outcomes? From its own experience of managing and delivering the full range of local government services, in an increasingly demanding environment over the past decade, LBHF would urge the Committee to consider seriously the latter case.

  In attempting to assess the benefits of the public ethos, little or no detailed research appears to have been done to date on its long-term economic value, in terms of the wider social and economic impact of many millions of daily decisions and judgements made by public sector workers, operating from within organisational cultures driven by "not-for-profit" goals.

  One of the risks of applying overly narrow measures of efficiency and effectiveness to the delivery of public services is that the contribution of a public sector ethos, whether it be in the extra hours worked for no pay (a growing phenomena in many London boroughs) or the extra 15 minutes spent in resolving a problem at source, reassuring a vulnerable or anxious member of the public, making the connections between services that add value for the user, responding at midnight to an unexpected emergency, go uncalculated and unrecognised. The hidden costs of not working in this way surface only further down the line, or fall on other agencies left to pick up the consequences.

Do private sector people working in and around government, including secondees, task force members and others, undermine the public service ethos? Are special measures needed to regulate their activities and prevent possible conflicts of interest? (Question 14)

  LB Hammersmith and Fulham has concerns that the growing practice of staff being loaned or seconded from private sector organisations to government departments, and some local government agencies, has at least the potential to undermine public confidence and trust.

  On the one hand, it is fully recognised that the public sector has much to learn from the private sector, and that such secondments provide a seemingly simple way of bringing private sector experience and expertise into Government.

  On the other hand, the public at large, and local government staff, have a deep and abiding understanding that there is no such thing as a free lunch. For private sector secondees to be loaned to task forces and to work in Government departments, will mean to the observer that somehow and somewhere, commercial and private interests are being served.

  For private sector companies to sponsor one major conference or seminar, might be accepted as an act of selfless altruism. For companies to sponsor a series (as has routinely begun to happen in areas of the "modernisation" agenda such as e-government), means that the public will increasingly believe there are other interests at play.

  The recent series of DTLR publications on "strategic partnering" (7) offer a case in point. Appearing in a standard format they range in content from formal consultation on the statutory framework for Best Value, through to what can best be described as exhortatory mission statements on how councils should approach the private sector ("Councils should develop a business-friendly culture at all levels").

  The Strategic partnering taskforce established by DTLR is made up of executive and associate members, including a range of secondees and external advisers from the public and private sectors. A Code of Practice is to be made available, under which members of the taskforce will work, recognising the potential for conflicts of interest. Given that a significant number of the companies making staff available to the task force will also be involved in commercial and contractual partners in forthcoming "strategic partnerships", such additional measures would seem very necessary.

  While codes and vigilance by civil servants at DTLR may well ensure that probity is maintained, the message given by such publications to local government employees, and to the wider public, is a profound one. Delivery of local government services in increasingly portrayed as a world in which private and public employees are expected to mix seamlessly, bringing with them sets of values, attitudes, and motivations that have hitherto been different, but which should now merge to achieve new models of best practice and effectiveness.

  The fundamental issues remain as to whether such a seamless merger is ever possible, and the delivery of private profit made compatible with the delivery of public good. While LB Hammersmith and Fulham is currently pursuing a range of new forms of private/public partnerships, in order to achieve much needed investment in services and infrastructure, it will continue to monitor closely their impact both on the values and motivations of its staff, and on levels of trust between the council and its public.

  The Council remains very clear that the ethos and commitment of its workforce bring to the borough significant economic and social value, and that if ever lost, this would prove very hard to recover.


  1.   The Public Service Ethos in Local Government Lawrence Pratchett and Melvin Wingfield, De Montfort University, Leicester (published by CLD and ISCA November 1994)

  2.  research undertaken by Professor Barbara Goodwin, published as Henley Research Centre Management Papers, and in book form as Ethics at Work, Kluwer Academic Publishers in 2000 (ISBN 0-7923-6649-2)

  3.   The Glue that Binds—The Public value of Public Services, published by the Public Management Foundation and MORI, 1996

  4.  Evidence from LBHF to Select Committee on Relations between Central and Local Government, HL paper 97-1, July 1966

  5.  Written evidence from LBHF to Committee on Standards in Public Life, September 1996, and oral evidence to the committee January 1997 (Cm 2850-11)

  6.  Third Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, on Aspects of Conduct in Local Government in England, Scotland and Wales

  7.  DTLR publications, Working with Others to Achieve Best Value (March 2001), Supporting Strategic Partnerships in Local Government (April 2001), and Working Together—Effective Partnering between Local Government and Business for Service Delivery (October 2001).

November 2001

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