Thursday, 31 March 2011

To March or Not to March?

Reflections on the 26 March Protest - and the Future

The London demonstration showed, if nothing else, people's strength of feeling against radical cuts in public spending. But, like many others, I would be more comfortable if I was clear what they were marching for, rather than against. I’m opposed to the current level of spending cuts, but equally opposed to continuing to fund poor public services. So where does that leave us?

Few people argue about the need for deficit reduction. It’s the extent and pace of the consequent cuts that causes controversy, and I’m convinced that no-one has the ‘right’ answer on this. We are speculating about how those nebulous concepts ‘the economy’ and ‘the markets’ will react to different policies, and if economists cannot predict this what chance do mere politicians have? So the view that any cuts should be slower, less deep and less arbitrary is certainly a legitimate one, and one that people have every right to express (short of the violence that marred the end of the day, which I utterly condemn).

The problem is that I’m not convinced that ‘slower and less deep’ is a sufficiently concrete alternative. Because if it is why haven’t we been doing it for years? Of course in many areas we have, and public service organisations across the board have been engaged on service improvement and efficiency initiatives – many of them very successful – going back some time. But their impact has been limited, and most of us will have personal experience of public services (sometimes those we work in!) which remain bureaucratic, inefficient and inept.

There’s a strong argument that the current cuts are less about fiscal policy than about driving organisational change. Successive governments have tried for decades to ‘simulate’ private sector market forces in an attempt to address the perceived inadequacies of public sector performance. And I stress the word ‘perceived’ here, because public service organisations are an easy target for accusations of mis-spending "our" money. (Funny, I thought it was our money that funded Tesco as well, but perhaps not?). So, the theory goes, impose huge cuts in public spending and organisations will be forced to change, where in the past they might have dragged their feet.

Whether or not that argument is justified, the counter-argument can't be one of status quo or “please leave us alone”. Public services have to demonstrate that they can and will improve the value they deliver without being beaten over the head with the blunt instrument of spending cuts. In doing this they are at an innate disadvantage compared with the private sector, who can generally express value in terms of revenue and profit.

The public and voluntary sectors often deliver value in much more intangible ways, through the difference they make to people and communities, and these can be much harder to communicate. Which is why public services are such an easy target: the money they cost is often much more visible than the results they achieve.

In a sense, cutting services (or maximising fees for Universities) in response to funding reductions is admitting defeat. It implies that your organisation knows so little about how it works that you cannot even identify opportunities for improving value, let alone implement them. Some more positive response is needed, over and above what may have been said or done before.

Whilst heavy-handed inspection regimes may be a thing of the past, accountability certainly is not. What we need is a situation where public services are recognised, by government and the public at large, for the real value they deliver. To achieve this, public services themselves must:

  • find meaningful (and non-bureaucratic) ways to demonstrate the difference they make; and

  • prove that they can achieve radical improvements in performance without the external 'sledgehammer' of public spending cuts

Get that right and I’ll be marching with you!


Check my web site at for more information and ideas.

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