Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460-479)



  460. Do you think central government ought to put its money where its mouth is and put a lot of resources into training in the public sector? Because when we had Dave Prentis along, he said, and I speak from memory, it is one and a half days a year training per employee; so do you think central government, or the Government of the day, carries some responsibility for the way in which local government has underperformed, if you want to describe it in that way, in the past?
  (Mr Williams) I think, absolutely, it lies in the broader issues as well, about developing leadership capacity, in particular, is something that has been really absent in the strategy for reform of public services. From our particular point of view, we have been very strong in trying to argue that we needed a strategy to improve political leadership capacity in local government as well as managerial capacity. It is the case that if you look at the amount of training and support that members are provided with in local government, you will know, as a previous local government person yourself, it has not changed an awful lot since you have been away from the scene; it is still incredibly poor, members are not terribly well supported. And what is different about central government and local government is that, in the delivery of public services, and through a partnership with a private sector organisation, we expect our local members to play a much fuller role in both the strategic management of those partnerships and the representation of the citizen and the scrutiny of those partnerships as well, so members are often wearing two or three different hats. But these are really challenging, difficult, complex roles, and we have got to address the issue of building capacity, partly through training but actually finding other ways of stimulating interest in politics and getting new people involved in politics as well.

Mr Heyes

  461. Gordon has just referred to UNISON, we have had GMB, T&G today, major trade union leaders have been in front of us, in recent weeks, and I think they have all said, very clearly, that whilst they have got a great interest in representing the interests of their members, that is their purpose, equally they were concerned about the public interest, and all of them said that they were strong believers in the public service ethos, in one form or another. We have also had representations from organisations like Capita and the CBI, just last week, who said that, in their view, that argument in favour of public service ethos by the likes of trade union leaders was often just a front, a way of disguising the primacy of producer interest over public interest. Is that a view that you share?
  (Professor Stoker) I do not think I would entirely share that. I am, I think, very happy to accept that many, indeed, many of my friends, involved in the trade union movement share a very real commitment to public service, and I think that equally it is true that some of the private sector actors that have got involved in providing public services, too, also share this broader concern with, "what are we going to do to ensure the best possible services for the public." I think that one of the secrets, in terms of what this Committee can contribute, is to try to take some of the heat, the stupid heat, out of the debate, and put a little bit more light into the debate, which I hope could be a lot more cool and rational about what it is that we actually require of our public services in the future. And I feel very strongly that if we do that then we actually can engage in a debate which lays out much more clearly what are the values, even the morals, if you like, that we would like to see driving public service provision in the future.

  462. But if it is the case that we need to treat the submissions, for example, of trade union leaders with caution, because there are questions about the interests that they represent, could that not also be a fair criticism of New Local Government Network, that you are very clearly strongly representative of a new producer interest, a producer interest that seeks to prosper on this new market that has been created? Ought we not to strongly discount what you are telling us today?
  (Professor Stoker) You are extremely welcome to strongly discount what I am telling you. But now I understand the specific nature of the question, or you have changed it to a more specific question, I will let John come in, in a minute, but, broadly, my reaction is that the Network is an organisation which has involvement in terms of sponsorship from the private sector but it also has involvement and sponsorship from local authorities too. I would hope that you would look at our arguments in terms of the evidence that we produce and the quality of the reasoning involved, in the same way as I actually hope that you look at the evidence provided by other organisations and institutions. If you want to know more about the actual background of the organisation, let me hand over to John.
  (Mr Williams) We have five distinct sources of funding, private sector, public sector, research trusts, conferences and publications, and we are very transparent and open about the relationships that we have with the public sector and the private sector.

  463. Is it possible for you to give me an indication of the balance of those different sources of finance?
  (Mr Williams) Yes, absolutely. The Private Sector Partners contribute about £300,000 to core funding, and we have a budget of about £850,000 a year; so that is the sort of scale. We are very open about the relationship that we have, that is why, if you log on to, you will find all this information out. You do not have to be an investigative journalist to find it out, it is up there, it is up front; and we have always thought it is very important to have it up there and up front. We also have about 2,000 individuals who are connected to the organisation as well, individual councillors, individual officers, and, of course, a large number of senior local government figures are involved with us. So cards are on the table, people know where we are coming from, people know how we are funded and, as Gerry said, accept the ideas on the basis of that and how they are presented.

Kevin Brennan

  464. You said, in your submission, that your argument was that the idea of a public service ethos is less important as a description of the motivation of public sector workers and more important as an aspirational concept for all those involved in public services. Taking the earlier example, from my colleague Gordon Prentice, of the recent emergency in America, the New York firefighters have been largely sort of lionised, to use your term around, and do you think they were motivated by a public service ethos to act in the way they did, and do you think that has any significance in all of this?
  (Professor Stoker) It is difficult to comment, with anything other than awe, in terms of what some of those people attempted to do. I would argue that they were driven by something even slightly beyond public service ethos, they were driven by just a wonderful humanity and a commitment to try to save lives and help where they could. But, actually, I think an awful lot of New Yorkers, whether they were working in the public or the private sector, whether they were visitors or whether they were long-standing residents, were similarly motivated to try to help and try to do what they could; and I think the kind of wave of reaction, in terms of support, that is, support to the charities and foundations that have been set up, reflects the fact that lots of people feel that if they could make a contribution and help they would like to do it. But, obviously, in that particular instance, the bravery and the contribution of those firemen, I think, went way beyond the level of moral and value commitment that I would expect from people in relation to the public service ethos.

  465. In that case, could you explain what you meant by, that you think that a public service ethos is an aspirational concept for all those involved in public services?
  (Professor Stoker) Yes. It is just that, I should have said this perhaps at the beginning, but I was a member of the Institute of Public Policy Research Commission of Public Private Partnerships, and at various times we sat around in partnership meetings talking about the public sector ethos, and we actually commissioned some research work on it; and what it showed is that it is actually quite difficult to demonstrate that people in the public sector are hugely differently motivated from people in the private sector. Frankly, even if I reflect on my own experience as a public sector worker within the university world, and look around my colleagues, it is difficult to think of them all entirely as knights, some of them possibly have knavish tendencies, I am not going to name names, but I am thinking of particular individuals at the moment. So the difficulty is, you are talking about what is clearly a very complex thing; people's motivation, I think, is very, very complex. But what I think we could ask of all of those involved in public service is that there is a set of ideals to which they would be prepared to aspire, it is not necessarily we assume that they are entirely motivated by them but we would ask that they should aspire to them, and I think that would be both a valuable thing to do and a clarifying thing to do, in order to give people some sense of what it is that is distinctive about being involved in providing a public service, as opposed to being involved in doing some other function within the economy.

  466. So what would be your view then, if you could successfully define those aspirations that would constitute a public service ethos, that there is no particular reason why that public service should not be as well or better than, what are you saying, I do not know, delivered by a private sector, profit-motivated organisation, than by directly-employed public servants?
  (Professor Stoker) My view is that what we need to demand, the reality is, in the world of local government we are already in a mixed economy. In a way, one of the best things that local government can tell people, when they talk about these issues, is there is no longer a debate about private sector, or "not for profit" sector, or voluntary sector involvement in service provision, it is already there, it has been happening for years and years and years. What we need to do is, we need to be a lot clearer about what we can reasonably expect of anyone engaged in public service; and, yes, I would expect those three issues that I outline in the paper there to be challenges that you would expect of everyone involved in public service, no matter what base their organisation had.

  467. But is it your view that, in essence, ceteris paribus, other things being equal, the private sector would do it better?
  (Professor Stoker) Oh, no; it is not my assumption that the private sector would do it better.

  468. So all you need to do is to make sure that you have got your public servants clear about their public service ethos and that you have got efficient management, etc., etc., in place in the public sector and then you will not need the private sector?
  (Professor Stoker) My reaction is that you need contestability and you need choice, in terms of who can actually be involved in the production of services. Now that is, in a way, where you need the private sector, because they add an additional dimension to that range of options that you have got, as a purchaser of services.

  469. To keep the public sector honest, possibly?
  (Professor Stoker) To keep any provider honest, so that I would not be, for example, in favour of private sector monopolies, and, indeed, we have laws and legislation to try to actually cope with the difficulties created by private sector monopolies. So it is not a challenge against the public sector, per se, it is just that, I think, out of years of experience and history, a realistic assessment of what it is that we need to drive challenge and change in organisations.

  470. Can I just pursue that slightly down the line a little bit further. There are some incredible, frequent, and we all have personal examples of lousy service in the private sector in this country, it happens every day when you go round, and I suppose if, in theory, there is not market failure, you have got a choice in that instance and you can go to another provider, that is your way out of it, not always but sometimes. In the public sector, there is an expectation, on behalf of citizens, that they should not just have to go shopping round for another hospital, but there should be some method of accountability, democratic accountability, ultimately, by which they can get some sort of recompense, or some sort of way through, to make sure that if they get that sort of service in the public sector something is done about it at a political level. How do you overcome that problem of accountability when you have huge chunks of the public service being run by companies who, essentially, are used to the principle, "if you don't like our service and we don't improve enough then you can go somewhere else"?
  (Professor Stoker) John may want to come in here, but let me just quickly say, I think the only way that I would address it is by starting to unpack the word "accountability" and accept that there are different layers to accountability. There is one layer which is performance accountability, and, there, I think, the availability of performance information and contestability can actually drive management improvement and performance improvement to a substantial degree. Then I think there is political accountability, because, often, one reason why people experience poor public services is because there is lack of investment in those public services, or choice of rationing decisions made by the procurers of the services are the inappropriate choices; that is a form of political accountability and challenge to those that have actually procured the service, and I am fully committed to making that as open and democratic as possible. Thirdly, there may well be forms of accountability which are sort of more legal, that is, your legal entitlement to redress, in relation to poor services, and, again, I think that I would like to see some of the existing provisions of a public sector redress applying to all of those involved in providing public services. So I think that, in order to answer your question, you need to unpack the different elements of accountability, and in those different elements you will find a different combination of answers.


  471. Just before we leave this though, could I apply the same question to this word "choice" that you use. Contestability I understand, you test what you are doing against what other people are doing, or what other people could do for you, and it is built into the Best Value revolution, and so on. But what I do not understand about choice is, whether we are talking about choice in the sense that the people who commission services have to have a choice of providers, or whether we are talking about the users of services having to have a choice of providers; those are quite different concepts?
  (Mr Williams) I agree with you entirely, they are very different concepts; but I think the introduction of new technology platforms, for example, in local government will provide an opportunity for greater choice and greater product differentiation to individual citizens and individual consumers within a given area.

  472. What I want to know though is, when you use that word `choice', which of those meanings are you using?
  (Professor Stoker) Ah, well, both. In the time-honoured manner, both; so it is choice in relation to procurers having a choice in terms of who is involved in production, so your first meaning is clearly something we sign up to. And the second meaning, which is that consumers should have more choice generally, is also something that I would sign up to as well. The first seems to me an absolutely fundamental principle, which I have tried to be arguing throughout, in terms of driving forward public sector reform; the second seems to me an aspiration, which new technology and new opportunities could possibly give rise to, which is the opportunity for users, in effect, to bend the services to more suit their particular circumstances.

  473. But, you see, I do not quite get this. As a user of public services, surely, what I want is a public service that works well; that is what my requirement is. It seems to me you are making a fetish of the mechanism rather than the purpose. I do not want a choice of people to come and empty my bins, I do not want a choice of people to cure me when I am ill, I want good people to do these things on a reliable basis, and I want a public authority to ensure that that happens.
  (Professor Stoker) Okay; so I am saying that I want the public authority to procure that when that happens, as well, and, in order to facilitate them doing that, I think, to have some competition amongst a range of producers is a way in which they are more likely to get there, for me. But then, at the margins, and in addition, in relation to some services, I could imagine that I would be interested in a choice, in terms of the range and variety of services that are provided to me. People do expect a choice in relation to, for example, which school they send their children to; you might have a choice in relation to the variety of options available in terms of, say, refuse collection, a more minor matter, but you could, I think, quite rightly, expect your local authority to provide a standard refuse collection service to you, but, in addition, they may wish to offer you a more elaborate collection service, to which you would pay an additional fee. This is, I think, precisely the kind of entrepreneurial public sector activity that Jack Dromey was trying to talk to you about in the previous session.

  474. But this is fascinating, because, if you go back 100 years, or so, one of the great old Fabian arguments used to be, I think it was Sydney Webb used to put this, how daft it was that you had a succession of milk-floats going round neighbourhoods, one dropping off a pint at this house, then going to 20 houses down the road, dropping off a pint there, and so on, would it not be more sensible if we had a proper co-ordinated milk delivery system, so that it would go to everyone, and so on. And that was the good, uniform provision model. Now all you people now come along and say, "oh, no, no, we want to go back to how we had it, we want loads of milk-floats, and", you seem to say, "we want loads of rubbish lorries, so that we don't want just to get the one rubbish lorry comes round, we want a succession of them, so that we can choose which one to have"?
  (Mr Williams) I think the point that we were making, in relation to rubbish, was that, for example, you have the technology today which is able to measure the different types of wastes that we will collect from Tony Wright's house, and Tony Wright is very good, he is very careful with his waste and he divides it up very well, he recycles all of his waste; but John Williams is hopeless, and he just bungs it all in the same bin. Well I can measure the profile of the waste that we collect from your house and I can charge you at a differential level. Now that choice is there to public policy-makers, in particular, you might not want to do it, but the point is that the technology provides a choice to the commissioners of service to be able to use as an instrument of public policy to drive up recycling rate, if that is what you wanted to do, and rather than necessarily charging an additional fee we might actually give you a reduction, give you the opportunity of a reduction, because you are such a conscientious person and you recycle your waste.

  Chairman: I do not think I am up to speed with this, I do not think I can get my head around this, nor does it quite connect with my life as lived.

Brian White

  475. Can I just follow this up. You have got your refuse contract and it goes out to tender, and the DLO loses it to company X; five years down the line, you want to retender it. You have not got the choice of going back to the DLO, because you have got rid of all that in-house provision, and therefore what you have actually done is to say that the only choice you have got is the private sector. So how do you get round the actual provision of choice, when you have actually closed down one route?
  (Mr Williams) Well what choice did you have before; what you are telling me is that you had a choice of one, which was a DLO, in the future you might have a choice of five or six.

  476. But not the DLO?
  (Mr Williams) You have got a choice.

  477. No, you do not, because there is no choice with DLO?
  (Mr Williams) What I am saying is you have got a choice of service providers.
  (Professor Stoker) Well, you may well, actually, have an opportunity, I think it is an opportunity, to go back to the equivalent of a DLO, but this time it might be a DLO run and operated by another local authority. If we move into a world where, in effect, local authorities, especially where they have proved to be particularly adept or effective at providing a service, can join this open market competition, then you may well find that, in addition to a range of private sector companies competing for the contract, you could actually have public sector comparators in there as well.

  478. The Treasury do not like you doing that, at the moment?
  (Professor Stoker) Yes, but I am saying that maybe in the future it is possible that things might change.

  479. Can I just move on then a bit further. A lot of the external contracts are based on regulators or inspection routines. What role do you see for that, either a regulator, like in some of the privatised industries, or Ofsted-type inspections; what do you see the roles for those kinds of vehicles being?
  (Mr Williams) I think one of the most important things that they can help to do is to ensure that the public has greater clarity about the performance of the private sector. There is an obsession with performance indicators, and we have managed to go down from about 187, I think, in local government, and we are celebrating the fact that we might be getting down to about 95, in the near future. In the contract that Cambridge Education Associates signed with Islington to run their education support service, there were something like 400 individual performance indicators. Now, from the public's perspective, that is just utter nonsense; there is no accountability really to the public, because there are so many indicators out there. So I think one of the things that regulators can help to do is to provide citizens with real, tangible information about the key performance issues that they are really interested in, and that really should be focused around half a dozen, or a dozen at the most. The other thing that is going to be happening, I think, in local government is a move towards corporate governance inspections, which will band local authorities into four separate categories, from high-performing local authorities down to failing authorities; and I think one of the effects of that will be to provide for much more naked differentiation between the performance of different local authorities and, in effect, I think, greater public accountability for the performance of those authorities as well.

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