McTernan on politics

Scotland’s first minister Jack McConnell unveiled his strategy for
public service reform last week – clear national standards plus
lashings of independent inspection. This approach draws on New
Labour’s model of economic control. For all the praise of public
services and those who devote their lives to it, the actions of
politicians both north and south of the border speak volumes.

Ministers do not trust either the values or the personal
aspirations of professionals to drive them to achieve excellence.
Instead, our governments have decided that whether you are a police
officer or a consultant, a teacher or a social worker, what you
need is a detailed plan with precise targets, time lines, and
milestones devised for you by the centre.

In the 1940s, the Labour Party’s Douglas Jay famously said: “In the
case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the
gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for
people than the people know themselves”. No politician today would
dare to adopt such a patrician and condescending tone towards the
electorate, yet they do not hesitate to take, in effect, a far
sterner tone towards those who work for them delivering local

It is all the stranger because as Tony Blair’s mantra “what matters
is what works” sums up, we have a government that has self-avowedly
made a virtue of being pragmatic rather than ideological in key
policy areas. So, is there any evidence that the objectives and
indicators of central planning have a beneficial impact. Not
really, as the dumping of unfulfilled first-term targets suggests.

The fundamental difficulty seems to be the model of management that
underpins the government’s approach to reform. It is, at its worst,
a debased form of how corporate conglomerates used to run their
businesses. In becoming more nimble, innovative and
consumer-friendly the best companies have abandoned centralism and
empowered staff. They rely on a sense of vision, mission and values
to set the framework within which different bits of the business
operate. Tough on culture – what we do and why we do it; relaxed
about process – how we get there.

And, perhaps, this explains why political managerialism is failing
either to inspire or to achieve improvement. Public servants know
what the government wants them to do, but do not really know why.
There is no sense of what the government’s vision is of the role of
the public sector, despite the speeches praising it. Nor, in all
honesty, are we clear about underpinning values other than an
unarguable, if blurry, commitment to social justice. Developing a
clear and robust mission statement of values is a difficult and
time-consuming task, but then no one said that governing would be

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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