Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Association for Public Service Excellence (PSR 26)


  The Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) represents officers and elected members involved in the management and provision of quality public services. APSE's mission statement positions the organisation as "the agency, that consults, develops, promotes and advises on best practice in the delivery of local authority services". APSE is currently working with almost 300 authorities within the United Kingdom.

  In order to respond to your request the Association consulted with its members in the form of a survey based upon the issues raised in your consultation paper. This response is based on the comments they supplied and is set out listing each of the issues to be addressed. The intention behind the survey was to obtain both quantitative and qualitative evidence.

  The Association in preparing its response concentrated specifically on questions 6 to 18 which relate to the concept of a Public Service Ethos and the involvement of the Private Sector as this issue is to be examined in the first part of the inquiry. The questions are set out over the following pages. Question numbers refer to those set out in the original issues and questions paper.


  The Association welcomes the inquiry, as it appears that the main intention is to go back to "first principles" where the main issue is the modernisation and improvement of service rather than an argument on the merits of public or private service provision. APSE over the last two years has sought to highlight the successes that can be achieved in local government when "Best Value" is applied in its truest sense and improvements are driven from within. We feel that while the public service ethos remains strong it is very much the culture that has changed and that it is now accompanied by a desire to improve service provision.

  In its 2001 Best Value annual statement, Changing Gear, the Audit Commission stated that there is "much that we should celebrate in council performance with performance improving across local government for most of the performance indicators. There was evidence of good, even excellent, services and many indications of likely future improvement. Councils are more open about their performance and are more in touch with the needs and wishes of service users".

  APSE has seen this evidenced best by the establishment and involvement of 186 authorities (at end November 2001) across 15 distinct service areas in our Performance Networks Benchmarking service. This model involves authorities sharing comparator information with each other, exploring best practice and seeking innovation through process benchmarking. The data collected supports that of the Audit Commission with trends indicating definite and real improvement. Take up of the Association's other key activities such as attendance at our Advisory Networking Groups, take up of training courses or consultancy services also demonstrate this change.

  The appreciation of the importance of the workforce are also welcome, as it is essential for excellent service delivery to have well motivated and committed employees.

  It is clear from our survey of our almost 5000 local government professionals covering a wide range of occupations and services that there remains a belief in the core values of public service.

6. Is the concept of a public service an anachronism?

  In our survey just over 81 per cent answered no to this question and believe the concept is not an anachronism. It is easy to ridicule the concept of "public service" as outdated in today's society. However, these views are not only shared by those in local government but also by the general public, who in survey after survey support the concept of public services. (Guardian/ICM March 2001; MORI June 2001)

7. Is there a public service ethos, and how can it be defined?

  Almost 94 per cent of respondents intimated that they believed there was still a public service ethos. The simple definition is where the provision of the service is the most important aspect. A large proportion of public service workers gain immense satisfaction from the benefit they bring to society and is a major factor in staying in public service employment.

  This is a very complex question, which is difficult to answer without going into considerable detail. The answers to the following questions will attempt to give that detail.

8. How is the public service ethos different from the private (or voluntary) sector ethos?

  The major difference has to be the need for any private sector provider ultimately to make a profit. The public service ethos ensures that services are provided to meet universal need rather than only where the private sector can make a profit. This is because publicly provided services are about more than service delivery and this has been recognised by the Government in the Local Government Act 2000 with the power of Social, Economic, and Environmental Well-Being (the so called ESEWeB power). This power is about public providers leading, developing and stimulating local communities

  Therefore, it is more a culture that exists within the public sector and this follows through in the targets and outcomes that are set by management of these services.

9a. Is a public service ethos necessarily a good thing?

  The responses to this question matched the previous questions (questions 6 & 7) with 83 per cent indicating that they felt the public sector ethos is a good thing. This ensures that the social advantages are taken into account and a wider view than merely profit is considered. This concept is now is now backed up by a number of leading management thinkers. Many successful companies worldwide now strive to engender shared values amongst employees, where adopting a common purpose is seen as a positive.

9b. Can it be an obstacle to the effective delivery of services to the public?

  The majority of respondents (66 per cent) feel that it is not an obstacle to effective and efficient service delivery. The best public service providers through their wealth of experience and expertise in their own specialist fields provide effective and efficient services to all sectors of society. Many respondents commented that the public service ethos is integral to equitable delivery of services. Local Government is about more than delivery and provision of services; it is about delivering democratically decided outcomes, which match the aims and objectives of the community.

10. Would the creation of a single public service help a public service ethos?

  Over three quarters respondents indicated that they would not like to see the creation of a single public service. The diversity of services and specialisms within the public sector mean that the creation of a single public service is likely to be counter productive. The challenge is to make the various services co-operate to better co-ordinate services.

  For example, joint planning and review of all public services within a given area should take place in order to reduce overlaps and duplication and target future resources in a co-ordinated response.

11. Is it possible for profit-oriented organisations to maintain the public service ethos?

  This question also brought out a balanced yes/no response. Just over half of respondents identified the need to make a profit as the essential difference that differentiated the two sectors. The relationship and arrangements that the organisations are operating under also can affect how any "ethos" is maintained. In the case of outsourcing or externalisation it will be very difficult to maintain the "ethos" as the degree of influence from the public sector and its tradition and management culture will diminish.

  Many respondents indicated that it could be possible for the ethos to be maintained in "genuine" partnership arrangements. The key factor is that the values of public service underpin the agreement and that the public sector is seen to be an equal partner and has a clear understanding of what it wants to achieve.

  In their article, entitled "Vote of confidence in public services" (23 March 2001) the Guardian stated on the findings of the poll that voters, now want to see public services run by the government or by local authorities". The article went on to also state "The poll shows that the public feel strongly that those who work for public services are underpaid and undervalued". It appears that where privatisation was once seen as the only cure for any identified public sector problem, a major shift in opinion has occurred with voters of all parties now favouring a public ethos with little, if any, appetite for further privatisation. For example, when questioned on should public services be run not-for-profit? 66 per cent were in favour of this.

  Additionally it can be argued that the case has not been proven that the private sector can provide better services.

12. What measures, if any, need to be put in place to ensure that the search for profit does not undermine the public service ethos?

  It needs to be that profit is not the only factor that is measured, with factors such as access to services, quality and fair employment being other important considerations. National politicians of all parties need to value public services and importantly recognise those who provide them. This should recognise that service provision is more than just delivering efficient services; it is also about delivering the wider local community needs and community leadership. All too often public sector workers are not valued until an emergency happens, such as in New York, the September 2000 floods, foot and mouth crisis etc.

  Where services have transferred between sectors, terms and conditions have been eroded and these have disproportionally affected ethnic minority and female low paid workers. This has a knock on effect on social security and welfare benefits often negating the cost to the nation as a whole. A particular example of this is the Refuse Collection workers of Brighton who have had four different employers in seven years, which because of the continual transfers has seriously affected their future pension entitlements.

  It is a fact that the world's most successful organisations respect their workforces and treat them as their number one asset. The Prime Minister has often indicated the importance of treating the workforce right in terms of pay, working conditions and training if employers want to run successful businesses. The Government through public service employment can and should act as a model employer for the economy and take a lead. In summary to this particular question, communication and recognition build confidence.

13. Can lessons be learned from the experience of private sector involvement in public services in other countries?

  The survey indicated a unanimous result to this question with all respondents indicating that lessons could be learnt. This willingness to take on board ideas and experiences from others makes a mockery of the belief that public sector workers are in some way resistant to change. This also backs up our earlier claim that while the public service ethos remains strong the culture within the public sector has also changed with a clear desire to want to improve service delivery.

  It is clear that in some countries where the private sector is the dominant force in the market that public service provision becomes the last choice. Additionally before looking at private sector involvement abroad it is necessary to learn from the mistakes in the UK of where private sector failures have occurred (Railtrack, provision of Housing Benefits in many local authorities).

  Additionally, surely it is also relevant to look at the experience and lessons of countries where excellent publicly provided services are in place to determine what are the major differences. Is it through increased investment funded by taxation or better working practices? Also has the case been proven for private provision? The Chancellor in his November 2001 pre budget statement indicated this very point regarding the future funding of the NHS.

  14.   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?

  There has always been a transfer between the two sectors, where each has learned from the other and clearly this will continue. 77 per cent of respondents agreed with this point.

  However a similar percentage felt there was also a need to have in place special regulatory measures. To ensure transparency there is a necessity for individuals to declare an interest or for particular companies to be excluded from bidding for contracts or tenders. This is especially where secondees are working on projects that may ultimately be up for tender or transfer. For example consultants who recommend outsourcing services which their own company subsequently wins. Over 79 per cent of respondents to the questionnaire backed up this point.

  It is also worrying that 28 of the 31 members of the DTLR strategic partnerships taskforce (figures exclude seven DTLR civil servants) are from private sector companies with none from the trade unions or other bodies representing workforce interests. It could be argued that there is a vested interest here with individuals who could deliver outcomes tailored to their own companies needs rather than to the public.

15. Many companies are becoming increasingly aware of social and ethical issues. Does this make them more suitable for work in partnership with the public sector, or does it make no difference?

  No. Ultimately private sector companies will always have to put profit before social and ethical issues. It is difficult to see how a company can put in place policies designed to deliver democratic aims and objectives over profitability.

  However, the main factor is not whether companies are more aware of issues. Of paramount importance should be that the partnership is a true partnership with both sides sharing mutual benefits and that the public service provider is seen to be driving the partnership to ensure that the desired aims are being achieved. This means that social and ethical issues are kept to the front in terms of policy.

16a. Do the views, motivations and attitudes of public sector workers differ from those in the private sector?

  This is a complex question and our survey indicated a balanced range of views. The motivation of workers in both sectors should be the same. There will be the complete range of attitudes and views in both sectors with individuals having varying levels of commitment. The attitudes, views and motivations will vary based on company culture, management practice, systems, processes, terms and conditions than on the sector and this is what will form the above. Poor management and working conditions will equally affect motivation in both sectors. If an underpinning ethos exists to put profit at the expense of everything else then this will transfer to the workforce. If the difference was related to anything other than these reasons why would so many of the private sector companies attempt to recruit staff from the public sector?

  In summary, the major difference is down to the tradition of public service and the way the workers are managed and the culture under which they operate.

16b. Does any difference in motivation have an effect on the delivery of public services?

  Almost 86 per cent of respondents answered yes to this question. As with the answer to the last question if the culture is in place to put profit before social responsibilities then it will make a difference to motivation. The constant criticism and lack of investment in the public service over a prolonged period of time has had a negative effect on motivation. Many workers in the public sector feel undervalued because of this.

  An example of criticism and its effects can be found from the Audit Commission's Best Inspection Service and its "scoring regime". Services that have been marked as "unlikely to improve" even if they are proven to be giving a good or excellent service have reported in an APSE survey of this having a "serious impact on morale".

17. There is conflicting evidence as to whether the public is in favour of private sector involvement in public services (MORI polling, June 2001). What in your view is the truth about public attitudes?

  In our opinion, the polls that have been undertaken in the last year seem to have indicated an overwhelming desire for services to be provided publicly. Many examples of this have come to the fore in the last year;

    —  the speedy reaction to the floods of October 2000 by all sections of the public sector. Here providing emergency services came before the question of how is this going to be paid for.

    —  the breakdown of the rail network over the last year where the need for profit came before basic maintenance

    —  the large number of Housing benefits contracts being brought back in house.

    —  the acclaim from the citizens of New York for the response of their public servants in response to the attacks of September 11.

  Using the last bullet point as a prime example, in the same way as the Mayor of New York, Rudolph Guiliani has galvanized support for public services, national politicians in the UK should also recognise the majority of news stories about public service are positives and the minority negatives.

18. If there are to be rules regulating private sector involvement in public services, should they apply also to, for example, the voluntary sector? Should there be less stringent regulation where profit is not involved?

  No. In terms of probity and transparency everyone should be treated equally. An issue over the last 20 years from the public sector is the desire to be treated equally (or given a level playing field) and not to be given preferential treatment. The only exceptions should be where individuals or companies have declared an interest.

  Thank you for giving APSE the invitation to submit evidence on this subject. I would also be grateful if you could include APSE on the mailing for all local government consultations. If you require any further information on this or any other topic do not hesitate to contact the Association on the above telephone number.

Councillor Malcolm Jones

APSE National Chair

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 21 June 2002