There is not one public sector. There are several public sectors from local authorities to museums and galleries, to universities, to hospital trusts, and many bodies besides. Personally, I tend to believe that public bureaucracies are a good thing. Bureaucrats tend to get a bad press as red tape makers, professional frustraters, or process obsessed pen pushers. Not only are these stereotypes tedious they are based in a bad understanding of what bureaucracy is for. Bureaucracy is not some idle, dull, our sour thing. It is nothing less than the way we have collectively decided to run the institutions which are so valuable that markets cannot capture their full value.
And we all have a sense of what good bureaucracy looks like. We can sense when our places are doing well. The bins are taken on time, the streets are clean, the roads get repaired, the grass is cut, and generally there is a sense that things are working. At another level this could be about being able to put your children into a good school, having a hospital appointment available if you need it, and a vibrant and varied set of museums, galleries, and other cultural amenities. At the most urgent level in dealing with global pandemics, like COVID, an effective bureaucracy is required to procure billions of pounds of goods, protect its citizens through economic and social measures, and prevent the spread and reoccurrence of disease.
On COVID, the public narrative tends to be that the UK had a less than optimal COVID response because of a mixture of malfeasance and maladministration by elected leaders. At some stage, there will be a public enquiry on this but what we do know is that our current configuration of public administration was not well suited to deal with COVID. This is partially because the public sector was simply not large enough to procure, check, and contract, enough goods to cope with the pandemic. It was partially because of the UK’s uniquely centralised government systems were not nimble enough to adapt to a rapidly changing pandemic. And partly, it was because of attachment to New Public Management.
New Public Management became popular in the Thatcher-Reagan era as an optimal mode of governance. Mostly famously articulated in Osborne and Gaebler’s Reinventing Government the big idea is to make everything smaller. Starve the public sector of resource, so the theory goes, and the use of contracting, lean management, and targets, will make everything more efficient. For a while it was seen as a cross-party cross-country universal guide to better government. Simply move people and pounds out the way and put big stretching targets in place and the market will take care of the rest.
New Public Management and its discontents
The problem is that this model doesn’t really work. The first reason it doesn’t work is if you reduce funding for public sector bodies, of all kinds, then they simply don’t have enough resource to procure and commission effectively. This means that they actually become more inefficient with public funds. For example, as the government chooses not to fund and maintain a critical ventilator infrastructure it was left open to price gouging and poor product when it had to procure them during the height of the COVID pandemic.
The second reason this ideology doesn’t work is that the market can’t supply all public sector goods. The things in our public spaces which make life worth living like our museums, galleries, theatres, cinemas, are sometimes publicly run but always rely on a public infrastructure to widely share their value. Funding from public bodies to expand and share their work, infrastructure to increase their reach and range, and public support through education, or otherwise nurturing creative talent, to fill these places with works of merit.
I’m not suggesting that the public sector must perform every possible civic function all the time. I believe in markets but it’s how those markets are managed, and how the participants in that market operate, which is important. It is one of the reasons I am particularly proud to work for Counterculture. The work I’ve done in my first month with a range of client across education, museums, the arts, and public sector, has all been about partnership. This is how can we add long-term value to their organisations through either short-term projects or long-term collaborations. Everything I’ve worked on so far has been about developing a shared purpose, putting in the tools to achieve that purpose, and leaving the organisation with a clearer idea how to achieve their long-term ambitions.
The future of our public sectors will be about partnerships with organisations with shared values. Where organisations like ours can be effective external challengers, supporters, advisors, project deliverers, or hundreds of roles in between, we have the potential to make a huge difference to the lives of the people we serve.
James is a Partner at Counterculture, an author and writer, and works across education, the arts and public sector. If you’d like to work with James, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image credits: Shunya Koide @ Unsplash