I don’t know if you remember, but a couple of years ago there was a lovely documentary series on television about the London Underground, and mostly about the people who work there. You couldn’t help warming massively to pretty much all of them. A few were a bit grumpy. But the large majority took obvious pride and pleasure in their work, and day after day happily overcame all sorts of hassles and problems, most of them caused by lack of investment, lack of resources and antiquated equipment, to deliver the very best service they could to their customers. And delivering that service, for the customer-facing staff, also meant engaging with them with warmth, wit, kindness and good humour.
You were left with the thought that if you were going to come over a little peculiar and need some assistance anywhere, then somewhere on the tube would be the place to do it. You could be pretty sure of getting the help you needed, quickly, amiably and from someone who knew what they were doing.
Equally, if you were going to come over a little peculiar and need some assistance, recent evidence suggests that the worst possible place to do it would be on a ward at Stafford Hospital. If you’ve forgotten the detail of some of the things that went on there, I don’t think I can help you. I can’t find the language this morning to reflect the cruelty, heartlessness and selfishness of most of the people who worked there. All I’ll say is that faced with very much the same problems as the London Underground staff – lack of investment, lack of resources and antiquated equipment – they responded as differently as it’s possible for human beings to respond.
What’s my point? Simply, that both of these are public-sector organisations. Opponents of the public sector say that state-owned organisations will always have a bit of the Stafford Hospital staff about them. In the absence of performance management and commercial motivations, they will always tend to sink into solipsism, putting their own comfort and convenience way above their customers’. Supporters of the public sector will of course argue pretty much the opposite, saying that all public sector organisations will have a bit of the London Underground staff about them: free from the tyranny of commercial imperatives, people will be able to do the kind of decent, kind, caring jobs that deep down we’d (nearly) all like to do.
There is then a second level of argument on this subject, specifically to do with the quality and commitment of the managers. Anti-public sector people say that the managers are pretty much always a) second- or third-rate, and b) pointed in entirely the wrong direction by artificial and usually government-imposed targets which will always be perverted in a way that real commercial targets simply can’t. Pro-public sector people say pretty much the opposite – that free from the tyranny of commercial imperatives etc etc etc.
Where does the balance lie? In the public sector, are there more London Undergrounds, or more Stafford Hospitals, or an equal number of each? And, just as important, how different is the balance in the private sector, and on the whole is it better or worse?
Trying to answer these questions brings out the Libran in me. I can all too easily see both or maybe indeed all sides. I can think of other rotten public sector organisations, some within my personal experience: but I can also think of other delightful ones. I can think of organisations that used to be useless when they were in the public sector, but are now equally useless (or maybe even more useless) in the private sector – BT comes immediately to mind. And I can think of lots of horrible and useless private sector organisations, including far too many in financial services, but also a number – I have to say probably a rather smaller number – of decent ones.
In this typically Libran way, I conclude that there is no pattern. In my experience there is no evidence that either or indeed any form of ownership makes any general difference to the values and behaviours of organisations.
I suppose that if that is the case, and there is no general difference in practice, then we’re all free to form our views on the matter on the basis of principle. And in principle, there’s enough of the student-era pinko left in me that I don’t find it hard to decide which side I’m still on after all these years.
But I have to admit that I’m not completely convinced by my own analysis. I have a nasty suspicion that if I wasn’t a) a Libran and b) a pinko, I’d look at the public-sector organisations – I suppose the NHS is the biggest and best, or worst, example – and I’d see troublingly much more bad than good.
What do you think? You could argue that by now it doesn’t much matter either way – that in the great scheme of things, nationally and indeed globally, this conflict is over and the private sector won.
But looking at how much of the fabric of our society is still in public-sector hands, that’s not really true. It does still matter. I’d be interested in anyone else’s views.