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Business at Oxford | In the service of the public

Business at Oxford | In the service of the public
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First Published: Mon, Apr 21 2008. 04 05 AM IST

Illustration by Malay Karmakar/ MINT
Illustration by Malay Karmakar/ MINT
Updated: Thu, Apr 24 2008. 03 22 PM IST
New forms of leadership are needed as the role of government shifts again in the 21st century.
Illustration by Malay Karmakar/ MINT
At Oxford, many international politicians and public managers pass through—sharing their wisdom, but seeking some “magic management bullets”. For me, this included training Tony Blair’s “government in waiting” at Oxford before their historic 1997 election.
Since then, I have joined various attempts at “modernizing” the UK government machine—most recently, chairing a UK cabinet office conference on public service reform.
India battles with its own agenda for public services, with the World Bank’s 2006 report stressing the need for improvement and spreading the benefits from growth. So, what are we learning about new roles for the government?
In the UK, many return to an 1854 report by Northcote and Trevelyan on the British Civil Service which set the tone for public service—then mainly a service to the governing elite. Out of that emerged the curious professional art of running large and global bureaucracies with discipline and a mind for order and status quo.
For the humble citizen, the mindset was “I belong” to the state. Post World War II saw a significant shift. The citizen moved to “I need”, and government—with the electorate’s blessing—moved to providing not only the welfare state (witness the National Health Service set up in 1948), but a vast array of public services through nationalization. State as bureaucratic (probably inefficient) provider, but “we know best”, was in full swing.
The 1970s and 1980s brought a citizen who said “I want”, with a suspicion that hands-on state was the wrong answer.
Margaret Thatcher and colleagues deployed a first wave of managerialism—efficiency, financial and general managers, and an ideology that the market (often, private enterprise) would provide. Energy, water, transport, telephones were floated off. Central government started reducing its size in favour of arm’s length agencies and providers. The state retained critical control over defence, law and order, and politically sensitive education and health.
In India—particularly since 1990—a similar agenda of liberalization and dismantling of controls has been pursued.
Blair’s 1997 Labour government tried continuing down this “new public management” route—devolving the machines of state into accountable “performance-managed” units. Private and “third sector” take-up has continued through outsourcing and financial partnerships now, including in publicly funded health and education provisions. Governments across the world have tried to “import” similar philosophies.
By 2008, in the UK, there were still around six million people employed in “public service”, but in many different kinds of organizations. The Central Civil Service was down to 500,000 (from one million in 1960)—but still includes much “delivery”, such as passports, tax andbenefits offices.
But, for the UK’s New Labour, at this stage, there are some dilemmas. Some private involvement has stumbled (notably British Rail, the nuclear power British Energy, and London Underground), and devolved agencies have had IT and other scandals. Impatient politicians demand a faster pace and solutions to “wicked” issues such as health reform, poverty and welfare to work, transport infrastructure and, now, climate change.
India, since the 2004 election, has woken up more to wider issues of concern around rural and urban poverty.
A fragmented system with separate accountabilities does not sit easily with such political imperatives. Joining things up becomes a nightmare. The knee-jerk political response is to grab Central control, set targets and use the “hierarchy” of the machinery to try and effect change. Local innovation and empowerment is trampled in favour of top-down management.
All this is amplified by rampant expectations of society and an information world that tells citizens that there is a “choice” of better service elsewhere.
Here lies the kernel of the next wave of change—citizens and societies are starting to take the initiatives themselves to reinvent public services by connecting them with their own lives. Change is co-created at the “frontline” between citizen and state. In the UK, healthy living centres, local eco-towns (ban those plastic bags) and social enterprises are examples. We are moving to a “we can” public compact.
So, where will government go next?
In the 1990s, Osborne and Gaebler’s Reinventing Government set out a mantra for how public sector could be community-led, with the state concentrating on purpose and outcome (setting those “wicked” questions) and then “steering not rowing” the process. The state cannot “direct” a large and complex system such as the National Health Service (1.3 million people and 20,000-plus organizations).
In 2004, I worked with the UK’s Social Market Foundation to reaffirm the same principles—the only problem was interfering politicians and a dearthof leadership!
If progress isn’t made, then disillusionment with government could see Central Civil Services reduced by 2020 to the role of regulators and funders—and a market free-for-all delivering patchy services all round. A more optimistic scenario could be a “reinvented” Central government that has embraced new leadership capabilities of “enabling” a more complex world of public services that changes from the bottom up. The latest “public service reform” agenda in the UK includes much of this intent. Places such as Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and others provide examples. Oxford is working with Abu Dhabi as they aim to be a “Top 5” government internationally. Key to it will be a new leadership capability that can
—carefully set and navigate different boundaries for state involvement—enable and work with multiple, flexible delivery methods, including public, private and social enterprise—provide adaptive and strategic leadership for a complex and fast-changing system, using Central control wisely—find ways of empowering citizens and communities with new styles of democratic involvement in public services and active citizenship
India, as the world’s largest democracy, faces some of these same challenges. The next stage will be interesting.
Keith Ruddle chaired the 2006 UK cabinet office conference on public service reform and is fellow in leadership, organization and change at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Reinventing Government Again is at www.smf.co.uk.
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First Published: Mon, Apr 21 2008. 04 05 AM IST