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Column: How do you solve a problem like the public sector?

The public sector is old, bewildered and struggling, writes Cormac McGrane. Here’s what we need to do.

Image: quinn.anya via Flickr

HOW DO YOU solve a problem like Maria?

Whenever I think of public sector reform, the line from that song comes to mind. But unlike the Maria from The Sound of Music, the public sector is more like the Reverend Mother. Old, bewildered and incapable of dealing with an energetic young novice.

So too our Victorian legacy – that is, the public sector – struggles in a rapidly changing world. That the sector is in need of reform cannot be denied. But where do we begin? Annoyingly, a line from another song from The Sound of Music comes to mind: “Let’s start at the very beginning.”

Why do we need a public sector? I’m not going to attempt to answer the question or try to justify the existence of this monolith. I accept a need for such a service. However it is not somewhere to put the unemployed or promote the incompetent sideways.

The public sector is funded by taxpayers, so money must be spent wisely. Each public sector employee must work to the best of their ability. Why should we expect any different? It is not a charity.

The services provided by the sector must add value to the lives of the citizens of the state, a service must have a clear purpose.

The State apparatus must function at the highest standards in the delivery of service to its citizens. It must be a great place to work and a great organisation to do business with as both customer and supplier. Invariably, such organisations also deliver the best by default.

So having set some ground rules, we must ask: What can my country do for me that I cannot trust any other organisation with? I think you may well find that many of the current services can be effectively provided by the private sector and often for a lesser cost to the tax payer and with greater trust and accountability than we get from our public sector providers at present.

‘If we cannot trust the State to look after our welfare, who then can we trust?’

Just because the State has had to provide certain services in the past doesn’t mean we still need those particular services to continue to be provided by the State. We once had a State airline, but it failed to live up to expectations when private competition arrived on the scene. We once built and owned the telecoms infrastructure, perhaps in hindsight we might have been better advised to have leased the network. We live and learn.

In some cases we hear calls in respect of social need. Subsidised public transport and housing for example. Could we put such services out to tender? We do not need to shut down public sector providers, but if they are any good, they should be able to compete on the basis of a level playing field and give the subsidy to the winner.

It comes back to the question of what do I need from the State and what is the most effective way to deliver on that need?

Obviously, if we are to start to sell off assets, or outsource services, we need to look at regulation and standards of performance. Is the public sector the body to conduct the regulation, or is the sector up to the task when we see what has happened in terms of planning and financial regulation? If we cannot trust the State to look after our welfare, who then can we trust? I think we need to reform the sector if it is to regain that trust.

We must ask ourselves what is the purpose of each one of these services. If it cannot be distilled into a paragraph, then the service needs to be broken up into bite-sized pieces with a single overriding reason for it’s existence and three key priorities it must deliver on.

If you have more than three priorities in your life or in your business, you have no priorities. Too many priorities rob each other of their sense of purpose and dilute commitment and ownership.

With too many priorities, you can have no progress and direction. Public sector reform is too big a concept, too complex a problem and overwhelming. The concept must be refined, the complexity must be simplified and it must become human in nature.

There is no “one size fits all” solution each element of the sector must be tackled on its own. These are the simple steps to reforming the Public Sector.

  1. Identify the needs of the Citizens
  2. Prioritise them (we will allow more than three priorities at this stage, there may well be thousands, but we can refine them later)
  3. Define the purpose of each priority
  4. Identify the goals for each priority
  5. Agree and set a budget for each priority
  6. Establish the most suitable method or vehicle to deliver on those goals
  7. Set each new priority free to achieve its goals within budget

One of the great benefits (or horrors) of setting a purpose and set of goals is that it becomes quite easy to then measure the success of those charged with delivering upon that purpose. It can almost become self regulating, refining its purpose and adapting to the objectives of its existence.

The tax payer pays for output. If output is not achieved within the defined purpose of the vehicle, its people can be held accountable and can set about adjusting their own performance to meet those goals and objectives, or it can be handed over to someone or some group better equipped to deliver.

No matter how you define the role of the State, it still needs people to run it. You cannot run an exceptional country with ordinary people, so our public servants need to be the best. They also need the best training and support for their jobs and we must expect the highest standards from them.

Our country can only be as great as our public sector can make it. We need a world class public sector. If we could break the logjam Ireland could become A Nation Once Again – and that song does less damage buzzing around in my head than Maria does.

Cormac McGrane is the managing director of THG Ireland.

About the author:

Cormac McGrane

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