Headlines: September 28th, 2009

Public service professionals should be liberated from bureaucracy and over management and freed to focus on serving the public. Above all, they should be trusted to get on with the job. This call comes from Demos in a publication ‘Leading from the front’.

The authors argue that public servants are demoralised and do not give people what they want. The services are also expensive to run. This results largely from a failure to trust professionals and to impose controls that stifle initiative. The remedy put forward is greater empowerment, more emphasis on training and making accountability smarter and more effective.

Middle management is seen as a brake on efficiency and initiative. Because public servants are not trusted an enormous architecture of watching, measuring and counting has sprouted around them. Staff cannot be left alone to get on with the job. But the managers themselves cannot be trusted either, so they too need to be monitored. As a result, since the mid 1980s there has been an explosion of central auditing bodies and reporting requirements.

For police, the paperwork associated with arresting someone keeps officers off the beat for an average of 3.5 hours, while social workers reportedly spend over half their time in front of a computer screen.

The way forward is seen as devolving responsibility and control to those on the front line of service delivery, by changing the power relationship between government, local authority and public sector institutions. An example is self directed GP teams where the team has complete freedom to determine how they are run within the terms of the practice contracts with the NHS. This model is now being extended to social work where practices are being piloted in six areas of the UK.

The authors also argue that empowering and incentivising staff in Jobcentre Plus could make a significant difference. They currently have limited space or opportunity to tailor interventions for their claimant and they are not directly able to achieve excellence. It is proposed that Jobcentre Plus districts that have a proven track record in getting clients into work should be encouraged to claim greater autonomy from the Department for Work and Pensions. They would become self-directed teams, who are able to spend the money allocated to them as they think best in order to get better results.