Government: Business or service?

Posted by Richard D North under Dare to be dull / Post-Bureaucratic world on 5 November 2009

Making government better by making it businesslike has a certain appeal. The trick is not to confuse policy with delivery.

Voters take the view that the Civil Service and local councils are full of self-serving job’sworths who need a huge shakeup. (Yes, I do partly blame the ridiculously over-rated Yes Minister.)

Sue Cameron noted (“Whitehall: service not a business”, FT, 4 November 2009) that Sir Christopher Meyer (our former ambassador in Washington) says that “we must not destroy the public service ethos which has already been so damaged”. She says he remarks that “Whitehall has been watered by consultants, special advisers and businessmen with ‘no obvious increase in efficiency’”.

One could go on and argue that business is brilliant (when it is brilliant) at making stuff and providing services. But it doesn’t do the kind of thinking – usually a difficult balancing act – which is involved in advising on policy.

In short, delivery is not remotely the same as deliberation.

That is perhaps why Mike Freer, the leader of Barnet Council, is so interesting when he writes about the increasingly bsineslike approach he is exploring. (“eCouncil should soon be taking off”, The Times, 4 November, 2009). He envisages councils being stricter in asking value-for-money questions. But the novelty of his approach is to explore ways of offering residents different services at different prices, along with help in doing more things for themselves.

You can see bags of pitfalls in this approach, and so can Mr Freer. His point seems to be that in the delivery of services, business seems to have more solutions than bureaucrats, and they have to be explored.

This is in line with thinking which began seriously with Mrs Thatcher.

But whether it is quite what David Cameron means by “post bureaucratic government” is another matter.

Isn’t it a matter of horses for courses? Making official policy is necessarily at least in part a bureaucratic function (quasi-judicial, deliberative, advisory). Delivering services was for years misconceived as a bureaucratic function and is now seen not to be.

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