Find what works first

July 27, 2001

Management in both private and public sectors lacks common sense, says Christopher Grey.

The debate about the role of the private sector in the delivery of public services has put management centre stage. We are told that there are no longer any ideological reasons to prefer either public or private sector provision. Rather, what matters is "what works". This mantra has become the sound bite of choice for government ministers. The what-works formula is code for the claim that the private sector has access to a distinctive set of managerial skills that deliver effective services.

The persuasiveness of this message is, as many have noted, called into question by the case of the railway system. On the what works as against the "ideology" criterion we might expect re-nationalisation: its absence suggests either an ideological aversion to the public sector or, perhaps more worryingly, a belief in government circles that the present parlous state of the rail network is an example of something "working". And the railways are by no means an isolated example. In our daily dealings with banks, insurance companies and utilities we hardly find encouraging examples of the private sector working well. We might wonder whether this is precisely the template of efficiency we want for our health, education or emergency services. And if the response to these concerns is that, in the private sector, consumers have a choice, then consider whether there is any bank, insurance company or utility provider that operates differently.

Yet if the lionisation of the private sector hardly accords with our daily experience, so too would it be mistaken to accept uncritically the public sector as a repository of good practice. To give a personal example, I was recently invited to attend a case conference of the care team responsible for my father during a stay in hospital. On arriving, I was told that noone had known that I was invited and that the meeting had taken place some two hours ago. The senior doctor who had invited me had not only failed to tell anyone of the invitation; she had also sat through the meeting in the knowledge that its time had been changed.

Anyone who has had contact with the National Health Service could tell a similar story and it is one that points to a failure of management rather than a lack of resources. But it is not a management failure that can be addressed by management skills as currently understood. For what is needed, both in the private and public sector, is little more than simple common sense and respect. Unfortunately, "management" has come to mean either stringent accounting controls or the paraphernalia of mission statements, vision, customer focus and the like. Both approaches have more than sufficiently been applied to the public sector, including the NHS. Neither delivers any more than the cost savings that lead to short-term advantage or the tawdry superficiality that leads to long-term cynicism.

Management skills, in their essence, are not the specialist terrain of the expert manager, who is often no more than an expert in the latest buzzword. They are, rather, the application of quite basic ideas such as listening to the concerns of others, responding to what is needed in a particular case rather than following set procedures, keeping daily "to-do" lists rather than waiting to be prodded by service users, and treating staff and users as individuals rather than units to be allocated or processed.

There is a management problem in this country compared with others, and it affects both the private and the public sector: financial short-termism and an obsession with jargon and fads. What is needed is indeed an appreciation of "what works", but that will be found in the notoriously difficult terrain of common sense and not in that easier ideology that imagines the private sector holds a magic key to effective service delivery. If the public sector could be reformed in this more pragmatic direction it would benefit not only itself and its users, but might also provide a template for a more general enhancement of managerial competence in the United Kingdom.

Christopher Grey is a senior lecturer in management studies at the Judge Institute of Management Studies, University of Cambridge.

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