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Public Sector Efficiency (Employee Participation)

Volume 592: debated on Wednesday 4 February 2015

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require public sector bodies to include in their annual reports and similar documents their responses to suggestions and proposals made by public sector employees for the efficiency and improvement of their service.

I hope that you will enjoy this, Mr Speaker. The introduction of this Bill is almost an act of atonement in itself. Over the past few decades, the House has been much occupied by what we like to refer to as public sector reform. In any word association test involving a member of the governing classes, the term “public service” would immediately elicit the word “reform”. In fact, we could mischievously define a public service as something that a politician feels the need to reform.

The words “public sector reform” in the mouth of a politician inspire dread and despair in equal measure in the hearts of those who work in the public sector. We in this place have happily burdened those people with restructuring, targets, changes in governance, commissioning, reorganisation, monitoring and so on, all in the laudable pursuit of greater efficiency, better performance and better value for the taxpayer’s pound. In the process, however, many of those changes have distorted practice in predictable and unhelpful ways and burdened public servants in frustrating ways. They have not always been aligned with professional judgment and they have rarely if ever boosted productivity and real efficiency.

My predecessor as MP for Southport back in 1906 was John Astbury QC. He is memorable for the following sentiment, which has found its way into several books of quotations. He is reported to have said indignantly:

“Reform? Reform? Are not things bad enough already?”

In truth, there has been quite a difference between reform and genuine improvement. Reforms are largely suggested by bright young things in think-tanks or consultancies who have little real-time experience of the institutions they wish to reform. Improvements usually come from incremental changes and from the example of those who toil day to day in a service. Initiatives cooked up here in the Commons have generally had little positive impact on productivity or the lived experience and daily work of those who actually do the work. We do not improve schools by calling them academies, and we do not improve hospitals by calling them foundation trusts. On a wet Thursday afternoon in the classroom or a busy Friday night in an accident and emergency department, the title on the board outside or the exact style of governance will make scant difference to how things actually turn out.

There is a negative view of public sector workers that sees them as a bunch of unionised time servers who need constantly to be checked on or coerced lest they traduce the public interest and squander public resources. In my experience, however, that is not how teachers, nurses, policemen and local government workers are. They are really very different from that. It is not naive to think that most public sector workers are happier serving the public interest, that they want to do it well, that they would sooner act with real purpose than to little effect and that, like all of us, they reflect on what they do. They pick out waste and spot inefficiency, and they get frustrated and downhearted when well-intentioned Governments misdirect or burden them or when service heads who are trying to please their masters ignore their reasonable representations. They do not necessarily need or benefit from ministerial decrees laying out in fine detail how they must pursue their craft. Nor does it help to follow up such decrees with heavy-handed inspection regimes that are more about bureaucratic compliance than genuine effectiveness.

The public sector ethos is not dead, but it must be cultivated and revived and not confused with commercial or personal self-interest. It is not unrealistic to think of the mass of people working on the front line as a huge untapped resource. My fear is that their advice will too often be ignored or drowned out by a plethora of desperate initiatives imposed from on high. I am therefore suggesting that a duty should be laid on public sector organisations of more than 50 people—this would not apply to smaller organisations—to include in their annual report or similar document their front-line workers’ suggestions for the improvement of the organisation or the efficiency of its services, along with the responses to those suggestions.

I am not denying the management’s right to manage; nor am I promoting some kind of Maoist upheaval. I am opposing the consistent turning of a deaf ear towards those on the front line. I believe a small step such as this would provoke a culture change, just as the introduction of diversity checks, health and safety checks and sustainability checks has done. The burden of dealing with a constrained budget would be a shared burden. The work force and their experience could be co-opted into plans for recovery, development and efficiency.

This approach is not unknown in the commercial sector, where good management walks the shop floor not in pursuit of grievances but in pursuit of good ideas. Under the Bill, organisations would be forced to respond to what staff had to say, or to ask themselves why their staff had so little to say. This would not be the same as assessments of staff satisfaction, although I would argue that a consulted, creative, involved staff is most likely to be a happy staff, and that staff are unavoidably involved in the pursuit of efficiency because they, like us, know the huge financial challenges that the country is facing.

The National Audit Office reliably tells us that local government is near to bankruptcy, that NHS finances are on a dangerous trajectory and that the thin blue line of the police force is becoming ever less visible, while the demands of the public show no sign of abating. Most of the economies that we have succeeded in making so far have been achieved through wage controls or manpower reductions. We are essentially doing less or paying less, but that does not equate to genuine efficiency improvements. We need to get much smarter.

We cannot revert to the polarisation that sometimes occurs in times of social stress whereby the public sector is set against the private sector and one is seen as a negative cost to the other. A good public sector and a vibrant private sector are the two pillars of a thriving society. Successful industry—we can learn from that—has learned the futility of micro-managing from the top, and learned to use properly those it employs.

Given the scale of the financial challenge that confronts the public sector, it could be said that what I am suggesting is mere tinkering, but incremental change mounts up. Incremental change is good change, and good cultural changes, if they are to occur at all, require buy-in at all levels. Good practice can be spread only by those who are involved in the practice. As hon. Members will recall, right at the start of the coalition the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister called for mass consultation within the public sector because of the colossal challenge we all face, but Governments are impatient, Ministers often do not want to manage, and in a flash we had restructurings galore, most notably the Health and Social Care Act 2012. That is not the way to go.

Incorporating our public sector workers in the pursuit of genuine efficiency is not cosmetic. It is not simply a way of affording them the necessary dignity that they deserve, but is a genuine attempt to prompt and provoke cultural change and a practical way of boosting the productivity that we badly need. There is a place, I admit, for consultants, for think-tanks, even for political intervention, and for testing against external and internal standards, but there is no case for ignoring the daily experience of well motivated staff or under-estimating their desire to work well to high professional standards. What I am trying to do is to amplify their voice and hard-wire it into the system. That is what this Bill endeavours to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That John Pugh, John McDonnell, Meg Hillier, Mr John Leech, Andrew George, Mike Thornton, Greg Mulholland and Jeremy Lefroy present the Bill.

John Pugh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March and to be printed (Bill 168).