…”it’s only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Warren Buffett
We’ve all been told for most of our lives that our character will only really be tested in times of adversity; it’s easy to sing zippididoodah when the sun is shining and the birds are singing. The Public Sector Quango I joined in 2003 was riding on the crest of a wave; it had arrived in the land of milk and honey and money was no problem…if you ask was it making a positive difference; I would say yes, a small one. Was it providing value for money; of course not…the phrase “lean and mean” was never bandied about in the Public Sector of the early 21st Century. This was quite a change for me, I had come from the Private Sector, from Carlsberg, a hugely successful and profitable global company, but still one in which every penny spent was based on a business case; “treat your time and budgets as if you were spending your own money”, was the mantra from my forceful regional manager. I now see the irony of her using this phrase in the Private Sector, in the Public Sector the money is our own but we have never got used to thinking about it in these terms.
So if austerity is finally making the Public Sector collaborate to deliver better services for us all then maybe its the catalyst that was needed?
I’m not being flippant about austerity and I’m no fan of gung-ho advocates of ill conceived cuts; there are few less compassionate people than those who deny their roots and the characterful ministers who gleefully promised to stoke the bonfire of Public Sector jobs seem to reinforce this truism. I understand more than most the consequences of the cuts to the Public Sector, the falling morale and the horrible loss of jobs and livelihoods. I wore the redundancy T-Shirt and it didn’t fit comfortably, but I never ever confused my situation by thinking I had a right to a well paid job funded by the tax-payer; I didn’t, I don’t and very few of us do.
Jobs in the Public Sector should add-value to the Public they serve. Maintaining organisations, departments and roles in the Public Sector simply to protect peoples empires, egos and feelings or to avoid the angst of change is no more a recipe for success than it would be in the private sector; its self-defeating, short-sighted, unsustainable and ultimately destructive…most importantly it leads to poorer services for tax-paying customers.
So now that we exist in a world of austerity (or more for less, and who would argue with that?) I increasingly find myself at meetings, meetings that should have happened before but would never have been allowed to happen before, meetings that are starting to place the needs of the Public at the centre of the discussion, meetings that embarrass those who openly play politics, in short, meetings that give me genuine cause for optimism because the sacred cows are being discussed, the elephants in the room are being addressed and at last the different parts of the Public Sector are being forced not only to think about what they should provide but about the effectiveness and efficiency of the services they do provide. I can remember a time not that long ago when the discussion in many meetings was more about how quickly a Public Sector organisation could spend a bloated budget to deliver against a fatuous set of targets and less about dealing with things that mattered to people.
In a brilliant book called Reinventing Government the authors suggest that the first factor in creating fundamental change is a crisis, or to quote Shakespeare; “Sweet are the uses of adversity”…maybe austerity in the Public Sector is just the crisis we need to get the services we want?