Is #whypublic sector the wrong question?

Catherine Needham


I enjoyed reading the Guardian article on Why work in the Public Sector? and the accompanying Twitter comments on #whypublic.

The article is focused on public sector working though, which seems an oddly narrow perspective, when so many people now deliver public services outside of the public sector. A particularly tricky dilemma for staff – some of whom may have been TUPE-ed or seconded out of the public sector – is how to uphold a public service ethos and values whilst working outside government.

In the ‘new public management’ era, there was a shift away from talking about a public sector ethos towards a public service ethos, which suggested a new ‘synthesis’ between the traditional ethos and private sector models of customer service. It was argued that the customer orientation transfers the ethical considerations of public service from following the right processes to getting the right outcomes, something that matters in both public and private services.

When the Public Administration Select Committee held an inquiry into the public service ethos several years ago, it stimulated a lively debate about whether such an ethos could survive the move of services to the private sector. Private companies indicated that it was ‘arrogant’ to suggest that they could not embody a public service ethos. But sustaining that ethos outside the public sector has been a challenge for some outsourced bodies. Hebson et al present data from public service workers outsourced in public private partnerships (PPPs), arguing ‘the cost cutting and work intensification associated with PPPs presents a significant threat’ to the public service ethos.

The level of cost-cutting currently facing many public services may mean that this work intensification, and consequent erosion of ethos, will be felt within the public sector, as well as in arm’s length bodies.

An apparently more benign form of outsourcing, the spinning out of not-for-profit mutuals and social enterprises, is now becoming common in some areas. There is a perception that such entities can focus on their core function of enhanced outcomes for individuals and communities, without losing their public ethos. However most of the claims about these enterprises remain unproven.



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