Performance in the public sector

I know from personal experience that not all council planning departments are like the one described by "Matthew Walker" recently in the Daily Mail. (Hat tip to Conservative Home) - the article is here. His account begins:

"Monday morning, it's 10am and I'm late for work - but there's no point hurrying because even though I should have been at my desk 30 minutes ago, I know I'll be the first to arrive at the office."

Well, as a planning chairman and later planning portfolio holder I regularly held meetings with officers at 8.00 am. I never had any objections when I asked to have a meeting set up at that hour, and in the process I usually saw plenty of officers in the planning department at their desks well before nine.

And no, I don't believe that people other than those at the meetings came in earlier than usual for my benefit. If a department was determined to pull the wool over the eyes of councillors they might possibly arrange something like that once or twice, but regularly every few weeks over the course of my two years as planning chairman and three years as portfolio holder? Human beings just can't keep up an act that long.

Neither is it my experience that officers at local councils in Hertfordshire or Cumbria cannot be removed.

So I don't think every planning department should be assumed to be like the one described in the Daily Mail article. Indeed, I am quite convinced that most are not.

But here's the problem. If you don't have effective mechanisms in place to ensure that departments of any organisation, be it in the public or private sector are not like this, you will get some departments which become extremely inefficient.

In the private sector, the need to attract and retain customers to avoid going bust provides a strong incentive not to let poor performance develop or continue. I would hope that departments like the one described by "Matthew Walker" are a rare and extreme example. Can we be certain that they don't exist? Unfortunately not. And it's up to the elected politicians at all levels to provide the pressure which in the private sector comes from the market.

The present recession has put a huge strain on practically every business in the country. It has also had a catastrophic impact on the public finances, which the budget earlier this month has finally begun to address.

It would be absolutely wrong to approach public sector efficiency on the assumption that every civil servant or local government officer is assumed to be a slacker. But it would be quite unreasonable to suggest that there are no areas of the public sector where we need to apply the same pressure to reform and improve efficiency which the market has already applied to everyone in the private sector - the people whose taxes pay for the public sector.

Matthew Walker's account continues

Although it's two years since I started working for this authority I've also worked for two other London boroughs in various capacities over a period of 12 years. In that time I've never known anybody be sacked, no matter how inept and unprofessional they may be. I'm not sure what it takes to get fired in local government. I'd say 'murdering the CEO' but, even then, you're more likely to be sent on an 'anger in the workplace' course.

Provided that the contribution of those who are really doing a good job is recognised and rewarded, it is time for the public sector to experience the same discipline which private sector firms have to impose if they are going to survive.


Anonymous said…
Is Copeland a crap Council?
See the Committee Meetings Calander for 24 June - the Full Council. "There are no documents for this meeting". So much for increasing public involvement let alone the claimed finacial savings to be made by not wasting money on paper and postage to Councillors.
Chris Whiteside said…
There were dozens of pages of documents for that meeting.

I presume that the statement on the council website, which does indeed say "There are no documents for this meeting" was intended to mean that the documents had not been put on the internet. That in itself is not good enough, but I entirely agree that the statement on the page for that meeting is misleading and unsatisfactory.

I will ask that the website is corrected.
Anonymous said…
This is far from a one off as far as the meetings are concerned, the documents usually appear after the meeting has been held and this is a Council that 'claims' to want the public to be more involved.

It appears that the Council are still wasting taxpayers money on paper and postage when a significant proportion could be done electronically. What happened to all those laptops, printers and training Councillors were given? Who cares it's only taxpayers money.
Chris Whiteside said…
Quite true that this problem is repeated for quite a lot of meetings.

To be fair a significant proportion of the material which CBC used to send out on paper is now sent out electronically. There is scope to take this considerably further, however, so I basically agree with you.

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