Monday, March 10, 2008

Thoughts on public service - how a lack of confidence betrays us all

In amongst the big picture statements in Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat conference yesterday, was a less high-profile but heartfelt plea that the ‘system’ needs to be more mindful of the public it purports to serve.

There is a certain irony here, in that I sense a desire, certainly in my corner of the public sector, to find ways to reach out to our ‘customer base’ (sorry, but I really don’t feel comfortable with the phrase) that make it easier for them to comply. Advances in new technology, attempts to improve the language we use, to reach out to people through advertising campaigns (for example, HM Revenue & Customs apparently have a greater advertising spend than Proctor & Gamble!), have all had an impact. Even more ironically, many of these innovations have come from the top of the organisation rather than, as we might hope, emerging through bottom-up initiatives.

Bringing new blood into the public sector from the outside world has had its benefits, undoubtedly, especially through the introduction of new ideas and the removal of a corps of professional administrators whose raison d’etre was to run the system and leave initiative and ideas to politicians - not necessarily a good idea.

The problem, however, is this. You, my friends, don’t get to deal with the people running the organisation. You don’t experience their enthusiasm and initiative. I do, sort of. I experience their initiatives and enthusiasm every day, through messages, new computer systems, reorganisations and exhortations to try harder. I also experience their efforts to cut costs, hold down my salary, make my working environment less comfortable etc, but that’s a story for another day.

On the front line, I experience heightened expectations from those who call or write to me - a good thing in some ways but pressure generating in others, organisational barriers in terms of structure, lack of management clarity, complexity of legislation and a computer system which prevents me (occasionally) from doing what would make both sides happy and adhere to the legislation. In London particularly, this is compounded by the unnerving effect of various proposals to move work, and thus jobs, out of London and the South East. All of these things tend to discourage risk-taking and initiative at local level.

Indeed, where public sector salaries lag between the regional norm, recruitment tends to be less successful in attracting and retaining bright, enthusiastic staff, encouraging a ‘jobsworth’ mentality, and a desire to hid behind the rules, “it’s not me, guv, it’s the system”. A lack of experience, compounded by a lack of confidence in their grasp of the legislation, encourages staff to refer enquiries and questions further up the chain of command rather than risk getting it wrong and dealing with them there and then.

This is what frustrates the average person dealing with the bureaucracy. It isn’t necessarily a big systemic problem, although the system clearly contributes. It is a failure of will, combined with a collective loss of confidence. There is a tendency, when faced with something going wrong, to assume as a starting point, that the public sector is wrong. Often, further analysis demonstrates that there is fault on both sides, or misunderstanding on one other, and that communication is poor. Confidence in what we do, and an acknowledgement that we aren’t perfect, would go a long way to addressing ‘Faceless Britain’.

Occasionally, you are forced to confront the impact of your behaviour, and Nick Clegg’s speech has certainly given me cause to stop, think, and smell the administrative Earl Grey (not coffee, I am a civil servant after all). I’ll be giving some thought over the coming days as to how my bureaucratic touch impacts on those I interact with and maybe some style changes may emerge. The battle against ‘Faceless Britain’ can be fought one desk at a time…

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