McTernan on politics

The first rule of creative industries is “look after the talent”.
That makes sense because without the writers, actors or musicians
there is no product, no business, no industry. It is an approach
that is the antithesis of the industrial model of production. For a
factory owner a worker is about the same as a cog in a machine. But
in a creative context when the talent walks your business goes with
them – the skills, knowledge and capacity are within the individual
not distinct from them.

The difference between these two ways of working is critical
because it illustrates not just competing models of management but
the gulf between two paradigms of economic and social organisation.

There was a tendency in the past for the rhetoric of revolutionary
change to be overplayed: anyone remember the promise of a
paper-free office? Today the reality is that we are in a transition
from an industrial age to an information age and that has
implications for the way we do everything. The most fundamental
shift is in the nature of authority and the consequent structure of
organisations. Our public services remain hierarchically structured
from ministers on Mount Olympus down to the nurses, teachers and
social workers on the ground.

And even where lip-service is paid to the productive end of the
process the language is a dead giveaway. We hear praise for
front-line staff, yet that formulation is the stalest of metaphors
taken from that most hierarchical of services – the military. And
even when the model is challenged by contentions that change should
be driven by a bottom-up process we remain trapped in hierarchy –
albeit an inverted one. An information age is characterised by
network organisation and distributed authority. No stick is so
long, no carrot so sweet that it can get around the fact that a
service is created from the encounter between practitioner and
client. Ultimately, nothing can substitute for skill, judgement and
flair at that point. What makes the difference? Talent.

So, public services are in the business of talent management too.
When staff move in the public services knowledge, experience and
relationships go with them. Looked at in that light how happy can
we be about the ways in which we spot, woo, nurture and support our
talent? Are staff the number one resource, or – as in the Dilbert
cartoon – round about sixth, just after paper clips and before
carbon paper? Staff shortages and the recruitment rounds cost so
much in effort and expense it is surely time to re-examine the way
in which we do business. Gone for ever are the days when workers
would be grateful to a neo-feudal employer for the fact that they
have a job. We have to show that we are grateful that they work
with us.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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