we need a new public-service ethos – here’s how

In my last two posts I argue that public can be private even when it’s still nominally public.

My Twitter complainant later suggested:

@zebrared My point is that there is a customer-focussed ethos that is not the preserve of state-run institutions, some of which are poor.

I reply by arguing that:

@d1ckyr My point is that (bits of) the security services & the police have been self-serving institutions, quite outside the ethos >>

@d1ckyr << of customer focus for a long time. And often, in bad private industry, the real long-haul customers are internal, not external.

Concluding a little later that:

@d1ckyr Don’t think so. What underlines a tendency to internal customer focus is profit motive to the exclusion of all other stakeholdings.

It’s clear, wherever our divergent points of view lead us, that customer focus is the key point here; but whilst the private sector claims to worship at its altar, the public sector may often be accused of being found pretty wanting.  In a sense, it is easier in the latter case to define by how much: voters, their families and their friends are clearly the clients of any state-run institution, by definition.  That is what representative democracy is all about.  Where public institutions serve themselves instead of such clients, we have orgs which manifestly do not have what I would define as a public-sector ethos: what we could less controversially describe, perhaps, as a public-service ethos.

The private sector is a different matter: it claims to always focus on the customer.  It inevitably submits itself to that daily vote of footfall which steps through the doors, virtual or not, in order to purchase goods and services.

Yet to argue that this means the best private industry serves the customer’s interest is to simplify immensely the situation to hand.  The problem is that we generally understand the word “customer” to mean the end-user – the external customer – of a company: the purchaser of services or goods who is responsible for filling the war chests of corporate capitalists through the profit thus generated.

However, there are many more customers of a company than just the end-user.  As an example, I used to work in a banking corporation where – in its final years – it implemented (attempted to implement) total quality management (TQM) principles which argued there was only one customer worth considering: the external one.  The experience was ultimately a disaster, and led in part to the company just about folding.  I’ll now explain why.

Prior to this experience, I’d worked with another large company – this time, in the car components field.  In this company, TQM was understood to mean that everyone was simultaneously a customer and a supplier: everyone had the obligation to deliver on time and everyone had the right to be treated with dignity and care as they delivered.  This created a respectful working environment, where problems were shared, thrashed through and resolved.  The problems were faced down amongst workforces instead of used to fight sterile turf wars.

You can see where I’m going with what happened in the banking corporation.  The “single unique external customer” model was used by those already entrenched in hierarchy to vigorously defend their positions.

This led to the kind of idiocy where, for example, it became common knowledge that relationship managers were allowing business customers to use the bank’s own overdraft facilities, charged at low interest rates, to invest in fixed-deposit accounts giving much higher rates.  The reason for this gross dysfunctionality?  To hit deposit targets they’d been given.  Whilst the PR said the external customer’s needs were to become so allegedly important, in truth it ended up being the case that no one cared a jot about internal coherence.  Even as that external customer was used to batter around the head the carefully questioning attitudes of the more rational and high-minded workers, the internal customers who were top management really took over the dynamics of the org.

I’m sure much the same has happened elsewhere, and in both the public and private sectors.  But I would still argue that the opportunity to improve matters substantially – without the distracting profit motive I mentioned above – exists far more in a public sector well-configured (notice I don’t say “well-run” or well-managed”) than a private sector which will always be stretched to differentiate any internal customers from external interests.

At least in a public sector which existed in a minimally functioning democracy, we could imagine there might be methods of oversight which would sustain a reasonable efficiency and justice.

But if we are now to use the model that is being implemented in so much private industry – where the judge, jury and investigators all reside on the same chummy board – I can only see more pain in the horizon.

In truth, all of us, wherever we work, live or love, should aim to be in some way those simultaneous customer-suppliers of my car-component moments.  That, I suspect, is the new public-service ethos we need to instil.  One where each of us, in environments of long-term security and support, can freely work to the best of our ability to achieve productive relationships of public service and proper dialogue.

Unbound, as they should be, by the constraints of fear which Francis Maude and George Osborne are aiming to place at the centre of British society.


Further reading: this, from the Guardian‘s Sustainable Business section, is a fascinating article.  In it, we discover how corporations can become benefit corporations, where it’s not only (nor even primarily) the shareholders which count.  Now I’m sure if Maude and Osborne get their hands on the idea (you’ll have picked up already on Maude’s name-dropping of “mutuals” I’m sure), they’ll promulgate the concept just as far as they need to in order that we might accept the running of hospitals by the (rank) private sector.

If we were able to trust them (sadly not the case), such an idea wouldn’t be far from a potential ideal.  A real pity, then, how two-faced politics puts the can on so many bright thoughts these days.

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