We all know what government employees are like. Start at 10 in the morning. Knock off at 4. Never do any work. Lazy spongers who are no better than those benefit-claiming asylum seekers gnawing at the taxpayers teat. Etc. N.B. yes, some public servants are lazy. But many are not and not all private sector workers are powerhouses of industriousness.
1. Industries are by and large defined by the product or service that they produce (and the professional expertise and technical infrastructure required to do so). Government is different – it is defined by its ownership structure. The range of activities that the government of a modern state can undertake are vast. Everything from formulating military policy to emptying the bins. This makes it difficult to generalise (but that doesn’t stop people). An example of this might also be the trust put in public servants by the public. “Public servants” in general only get a middling rating in the Roy Morgan Image of Professions survey. Altho nurses top it. And 65% of nurses work in the public sector. People also trust judges, teachers and the police. And they don’t trust business leaders and politicians so much.
2. The demonisation of the public service is part of a longer term debate about who should do what in society. Is society best served by turning over all activities to private individuals competing in a marketplace? Or should activities be undertaken by a centrally coordinated government entity? The answer that Western democracies have generally settled on is “both” however the balance between the two changes over time (and indeed space – the role of government is very different in the US vs Scandinavia). The Post-WWII period saw a general increase in the size, power and economic involvement of governments. Following the turmoil of the 70s, there was a movement the other way with politicians like Thatcher and Reagan drawing on economists like Friedman and Hayek to propose a more markets-focused approach. This wasn’t (just) a technocratic movement but also a moral one. Markets and business were not just economically efficient but morally good. Government wasn’t just inefficient, it was morally wrong (and could be linked to the “evil empire” of the communist bloc). Public servants were no longer civic-minded individuals who traded the potential financial rewards of the private sector for the public good (and perhaps a little more job security). They were bad people looking to block or divert the vital, animal spirits of capitalism. Boo!
3. I spent a year working in the public sector. In some ways, it was a very frustrating experience. The risk/reward model varies between sectors. In some organisations, you are actively encouraged to take as much risk as you. If you win, you may get rewarded big. If you fail, you may get the push. But inaction is also dangerous. In some organisations, inaction is worse than failure. My experience in government was not like that. Risk was always bad. The perception was that experimentation also implied a big downside with little or no upside. No one wanted to do anything that might put the minister on the front page of a newspaper in a bad way (and it nearly always is a bad way – good ways get relegated to page 27). This view of risk is wide spread in the public sector and makes it a very conservative place (which is richly ironic, given that most self-identifying conservatives hate the public sector). This risk aversion can be mapped back to economic incentives and cultural patterns. And as noted above, the public sector is a diverse place, so you do get pockets of innovation. But we need more. And inaction can look like laziness.
4. Many of the lifetime public sector workers I met seemed to believe that problems of inefficiency and poor decision making were limited to government. In effect, they believed the stereotypes. I remember the looks of disbelief on their faces when I told them about some of my private sector experiences (e.g. the $40m lost due to someone not bothering to read the IP clauses in the contract). “But… but… the private sector have everything sorted, right? They are efficient. And productive. And wise. That’s why we’ve tried to implement all that stuff from the private sector about balanced scorecards and KPIs and customer-centricity and six sigma and stuff. It did work for them didn’t it? Their organisations are smooth-running machines aren’t they? That’s what the management consultants told us.”
So what to do about these lazy public servants? Who will rid me of these turbulent clerics? I’m not sure that I have an answer but I think three things are important.
The first is openness. By everyone. Politicians. Public sector workers. Businesspeople. What do we do well and what do we suck at? Lets get behind the PR BS that we tell each other and get at some hard truths.
The second is empathy. Can non-public sector workers understand some of the challenges of government? Can public sector workers explain these effectively?
The final one is risk. Reducing risk in government is not good because that eliminates the opportunities for reward. Productively managing it should be our goal. Do we have the guts for that?