Radical Reform Public Sector – Opinion – Reforming Leviathan: Mandarin lessons | The Economist

The legislative triangle of the European Union

The legislative triangle of the European Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This lead article in the Economist is well worth a read. Check it out!

via Reforming Leviathan: Mandarin lessons | The Economist.

Whilst, I agree with the broad thrust of the article, I feel that it understates the political complexity of the challenge. However, I particularly share the Economist’s conclusion that a long-term strategy is required, rather than one dependent upon incumbent political leadership.

Personally, I have extensive, direct, first-hand experience of delivering strategic change in public sector organizations, including international agencies (UNESCO), central and local government, so let me suggest a few pointers.

Firstly, from the standpoint of the tax-payer or unemployed millennial, there is vast inefficiency and waste in the bureaucracies of the public sector. There are multiple layers to the challenge:

  1. Central Government
  2. Local Government
  3. Public Services like Police, Fire etc.
  4. International Government, like the European Union, and
  5. International Agencies, like UNESCO, the IMF, and the World Bank

Secondly, there is an enormous stakeholder problem, creating inertia and supporting vested interests, for example politicians, professional Mandarins, and powerful labour unions protecting junior employees who might struggle to hold a comparable job in the Private Sector.

Thirdly, there is a political challenge, in that politicians meddle in day-to-day administration, with frequent knee-jerk reactions that are disruptive and incredibly inefficient. There is also the issue of the political color of the Mandarins. I agree with the Economist that political appointments, like in the US are dysfunctional. But overall, the public sector struggles to secure and retain top quality employees.

Fourthly, it is important to recognize the competence issue. Let me state, that in my dealings with the Public Sector, I have met many outstanding and capable leaders, who frequently have their hands tied behind their back by bureaucracy and political meddling.

Fifthly, the popular alternative to “big government” is outsourcing but unfortunately the outsourcing firms  often tend to be more powerful than the Mandarins and their political masters.

Sixthly, there is the enormous inefficiency of dependency on major consulting firms to supplement expertise. The major consulting firms seem to be very close to the Mandarins and their political masters – this often precludes the procurement of more cost effective independent professional services.

To put the above six challenges in context, take a look at a popular earlier blog, entitled UK Local Authorities and Shared Service: Cost-Cutting – Myth or Reality?

Any thoughts on radical reform of the public sector?

English: Structure of the Public Sector

English: Structure of the Public Sector (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One response

  1. Dr Alf is right, and yes, civil servants need to be motivated and reformed.

    However, if one looks at the way Government operates in the UK, for example, one can see that as compared with other countries, the UK is very inefficient and that value per taxpayer pound is one third of Singaporean levels.

    Since 1885, the height of British Imperial power, the number of civil servants has grown from 15,000 to the largest employer by far in Britain.

    The NHS is the largest employer in Europe, yet produces the worst health outcomes and has the lowest cancer survival rates,the worst heart attack survival rates and the lowest lifespan.

    UK woman are walking barrage balloons, the fattest woman in Western Europe; dementia is set to explode as is diabetes.

    Through all of this, the Department of Health is content to issue guidance about the hot weather, along the lines of “Drink lots of water”, “Wear light, loose fitting clothing and open windows”.

    The people responsible for this gratuitous nonsense are civil servants and their political masters.

    Look at defense, where we have a Tri Forces of 83,000 people, just 17 escort vessels for our ships, no coastal protection vessel, aircraft carriers without aircraft.

    As an island, not self sufficient in food and with 3% spare generating capacity and needing to export to survive, it does not take a genius to see that this puts us in danger and is strategically foolhardy.

    What the MOD civil servants actually do?

    In my lifetime, they have never got a single piece of procurement right, nor completed a single project on time nor to budget. This despite Prince 2 project tolerances being 6% to 8%.

    The Home Office is almost as dysfunctional in that it allows 250,000 illegal immigrants to enter the country each year and presides over a system where 19 million more NI numbers than there are people in the workforce, exist. These numbers can allegedly and are being bought and sold in downmarket pubs, used by people to gain fake identities, claim benefits and steal money from taxpayers and financial institutions.

    The response of successive Government Ministers and civil service Mandarins is to do nothing.
    Frank Field brought in by Tony Blair to “think the unthinkable”, suggested the system be scrapped and was sacked for his trouble.

    Looking at local Government, things are worse.

    We have county councils, unitary authorities, mid county councils, metropolitan borough councils,London Borough Councils and city councils. Then below the county councils, we have districts and boroughs.
    In addition, we have duplication via outsourced services but with no reduction in the number of paid for service directors.

    Police and Fire commands are based on county councils and both police and fire have separate call/dispatching centres as does the ambulance service and county councils, unitary authorities and some district councils.

    Purchasing by and large is conducted separately as well resulting in more poor value for money.

    Adult Social care resulting from poor public health education, sedentary lifestyles and a laissez-faire approach to potential benefit recipients has resulted in a situation where 55% of county council and unitary authority budgets are consumed by a vociferous minority of usually old but always demanding Adult Social Care recipients.

    County Councils get half their money from the taxpayer through central government but the obvious solution of merging Adult Social Care into the NHS, early prevention and a tougher approach to health including variable tax on foods is not applied.

    This too can be laid at the feet of Ministers and civil servants.


    Dr Alf’s processes cannot be faulted but as a small country with too many people and too many civil servants we need to tackle both structure and numbers taking care to retain bright people who get it and removing those who don’t, the dishonest, the mendacious, the complacent, the stupid, the greedy and the incompetent.

    To my mind, that means reducing overall civil service numbers to 15,000, reducing councils to 15 for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, abolishing districts and boroughs and outsourcing all the services that districts and boroughs used to perform.

    Police and Fire commands need to be reduced to 15 for the whole country and the multiplicity of call centres, dispatching centres and ambulance dispatching operations reduced to 4 large shared service centres with backup provision.

    Purchasing should be centralised but provision split between a rotating panel of providers and tenderers under rigourous arrangements.

    Public sector trades unions should be derecognised and all staff and civil servants sackable for poor performance.

    The NHS which is beyond reform should be abolished and replaced with a German/French type system,people should be made personally responsible for their own health with variable taxes on foods applied immediately.

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