Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Downsize this

Nice article in the Independent (which you can now buy in concise tabloid form - i) about the Cameron approach to the public sector. Christina Patterson shows how the government's discourse on how to slim down the public sector and promote the Big Society is the latest expression of the 'cult of the amateur' - the UK's insistence that high-skill jobs in the public sector are wasteful by definition, and that anyone could do a job like teaching or running a hospital budget.

Apart from the obvious lack of understanding of how the state works, which is worrying in people who have to run the state, there is another implication here that is worth noting: that the whole Big Society idea seems to assume that amateurs can do anything the state does. This flies in the face of everything we know about modern economies - that success comes from investment, skills and coordination. David Starkey in the classroom on Jamie Oliver's latest reality show personifies this nicely (ironically, given that Starkey does actually teach for a living).

There is something to be learnt from this. The right has been banging on for years about the public sector as a drain on resources, and New Labour responded by introducing a series of 'reforms', some of which may have improved efficiency, some of which clearly didn't, and some of which were counter-productive. But perhaps the best way to respond is to make the public sector better by increasing the skills and professionalism of its employees. Sure, this costs money, but in the end people want the product (good healthcare, good schools etc), not something made by the private or public sector. Of course, if people have no way of comparing private and public, it is hard to make the case that the public sector is as good as it could be. But by downsizing the state and leaving key functions - at best - in the hands of amateurs, the Conservatives could be about to make that case for us.