Public services are different

As he left office as Prime Minister, and age ago in June 2007, Tony Blair wrote the following in The Economist:

Public services need to go through the same revolution – professionally, culturally and in organisation – that the private sector has gone through.

It is easy to understand how politicians become frustrated with the leaden ways of so much of the public sector.  And the private sector has indeed been revolutionised in the last two decades.  Recently I’ve experienced this private sector revolution full on.

Somebody has been setting up mobile phone contracts in my name.

The first I heard of this was when a welcome arrived through the mail.  My daily post hasn’t been this exciting for years (well since the last time somebody did this).  Then comes the difficult bit: I have to phone the company to stop the contract.  Since I don’t actually have the phone and the free service line that goes with it, this usually means phoning a premium number and then wading through the various options.  Funnily enough none of the options says “If you want to report a fraudulent transaction press 3” – it’s always “other” at the end of the list; one company only lets you in if you have a PIN – not easy if you didn’t actually set the contract up.  Eventually you speak to somebody with a script, sometimes in India; actually this bit usually works OK: these people are polite and know what to do; only once was I just passed round the office. And there it seems to end; somebody gets a free handset and a few days worth of free calls.  Just another business expense.

It is a huge, horrible impersonal nightmare of systems, procedures, filters and scripts, with the minimum human contact.  The fraudster doesn’t know who I am.  The company allows the fraud because it is worth the expense.  I have to wade through the system to protect myself.  This is the dark side of the private sector revolution of which Tony Blair writes.  The personal element is sucked out and crime lurks in the fringes.  Perhaps Prime Ministers are cocooned from this.

The process is relentless.  I should know, since I used to manage a financial services operation that underwent just such a transformation.  The starting point was a clumsy labour-intensive operation, not easy to manage; the service may have had lots of human interfaces, but you didn’t really know what the staff were doing: not until too late and you had an irate customer.  Then along comes a salesman with a system that helps you control all this and keep proper records.  He or she would be gushing: you would save money, improve the quality and customer satisfaction all at once.  So you implemented these wonderful workflow and customer relationship systems, and indeed you could improve controls and improve quality of service.  But if you wanted to reduce costs as well, then you had to keep the customers away from the workforce and build barriers.  And then came a process called “de-skilling”: using less skilled staff, usually in a location were wages are much lower, and giving them simpler procedures to follow.  And the pressure to reduce costs is absolutely relentless, not least because mostly the public chose lower costs over better service.

Clearly there is a big upside.  The public can consume more and (usually) gets more choice.  No doubt this is what Mr Blair was thinking of.  If everybody is going to get richer, or even just have more leisure, then we must produce more per person.  This is just another way of saying that the personal content in the goods and services we deliver has to be less.  Sweden is often cited as an example of a society that is well off without rampant, exploitative capitalism: but try finding a member of staff at IKEA.  And, we shouldn’t view the past with rose-tinted spectacles: services may have been more personal, but they were often shoddy and high-handed.  Overall we are better off.

But public services are different.

Personal contact, and understanding the user’s individual needs is often of the essence for public services – think of schools, doctors, social workers.  And simply deciding that somebody is too difficult to deal with is not an option.  If people fall off the edge they create even bigger problems.  In fact so many of societies problems are the result of lack of human contact and understanding – think of antisocial behaviour or mental illness.  Public services should be more human not less.  If they were, we’d need them less.

What we need is a complete rethink of public services, not copying blindly from the private sector.

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