Red tape invitation is just a cynical stunt

Y ou’ve probably dashed off several dozen postcards or e-mails
already since it is not often that the leader of the Conservative
Party acknowledges the existence of the public sector in a positive
fashion, never mind asks it for help.

Last week, Michael Howard paid for a full-page advertisement in
The Guardian‘s Society section, a bit like General Custer
sticking his head in the nearest native American wigwam before his
last stand.

Howard explained that the government spends more than £400bn a
year on the public sector, yet £70bn a year is being lost
through waste. At the same time, “all the pen-pushing, form-filling
and paper shuffling” is creating a “very real tide of anger and
demoralisation among senior hospital doctors”. He failed to mention
social workers’ struggles in this context.

“You know what’s crazy and what’s efficient,” Howard continued. “I
have asked David James, the top business troubleshooter to report
on Government waste – and he’s waiting to hear your examplesÉ
Every example of waste that you send will help create the standard
of public service that you and I want, and above all, the public

The advertisement is a cynical political gesture – a trawl for
ammunition to fire off at Labour – and a wasted opportunity to open
up a genuine dialogue with those who work on the front line. It’s
not that waste and red tape aren’t problems but since they, and
they alone, are being given this high Conservative priority, the
response will only confirm in the public’s mind that the sector’s
ailments amount to a mountain of paperwork and money dribbling down
the drain.

How much more productive if Howard had extended his invitation to
ask what else might make a real difference to standards? If “the
public” (as if five million employees aren’t also consumers of
health and social care) wants to see improvement, then Howard also
needs to be reminded of recruitment and retention problems, the
issue of inadequate salaries, the high degrees of stress, the
constraints on resources which make a good job difficult to
deliver, the corrosive effect on standards of contracting out and
the increasingly centralised control which inhibits a social
worker’s ability to use instinct, experience and initiative.

Come to Howard’s aid, if you so choose – but don’t forget the
postscript which gives him what he really doesn’t want to hear:
your own agenda for change.

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