The public sector needs reform, not expansion

It’s becoming increasingly mystifying how on earth Jeremy Corbyn can claim that his radical economic proposals would improve the quality of life of people living in the UK.

He has announced takeovers of the railways, energy networks, water, postal services, and now even the internet. He is wedded to the ideological belief that the public sector is as efficient and productive as the private sector.

The truth, of course, is that the public sector is much less productive, less efficient, and less willing to innovate. The biggest problem with Corbyn’s proposed nationalisations is the inefficient way in which these services would be run – and the long-term damage that will result from that.

This is before you get to the monumental obstacle to overcome the eye-watering costs of buying these industries to begin with. The UK’s national debt would skyrocket.

The main reason for the disparity between the public and private sectors revolves around culture. In the private sector, the culture is one of getting things done. If employees are not performing well, they are taken aside for a quiet word. If no improvement is made, the conversation escalates and eventually, if necessary, firmer action is taken. The livelihoods of all parties depend on this constructive dynamic.

Private sector culture incorporates both organisational and individual accomplishments. “You have been given the resources to complete this task, so you are now expected to do it.” The culture is one of responsibility and empowerment.

Managers and executives are empowered to hire and fire people in private companies. In the public sector, it is very difficult to fire people. As a result, the work culture is comparatively lax and indifferent.

Much of this is due to a poor appreciation of the value of time. Government projects are almost always delayed. The municipal government of Toronto recently took no less than six years to build a bicycle shed.

For Jeremy Corbyn to believe that the state can take over vast swathes of the private sector and run them at the same level under state management is absurd.

Corbyn, never having worked in the private sector, does not understand the realities of public sector management. He also blithely overlooks the innovation and other vast benefits that come as a result of private enterprise, which have brought immeasurable benefit to billions.

His proposals would see the government declare war on the primary driver behind the private sector as part of an ideological crusade. In the long run, the economy would suffer profoundly.

Of course, this is not to say that the private sector is perfect. Crony capitalism and regulatory failings have caused harm to citizens. But the roots of even these things can be traced back to government failure to adequately regulate key areas. Even the worst excesses of the private sector are, fundamentally, a result of the failure of the public sector to do its job.

Corbyn also overlooks the fact that public sector bureaucracy is already broken. His policies would worsen the problem. Even if they never come to fruition, the public sector still needs fundamental reforms centred on efficiency, accountability and productivity.

For instance, public sector workers could be made more accountable for their labour if they were required to share their work calendars publicly, giving a basic sense of what they do each day.

This would make it easier to root out inefficiency, since we would be able to see what is being accomplished, where, when and by whom. So long as security and privacy concerns are taken into account, this proposal is feasible.

Indeed, this simple change would force the entire public sector to rethink what it’s doing and how it approaches its job. Politicians would act quite differently if they knew that the public and media could see what they were doing.

Public sector managers should also be given more control of their deliverables. Managers should have authority over those in their employ, including the power to get rid of people.

There also needs to be greater use of performance metrics that are used in decision-making. Managers must have the authority to act on those decisions. That would light a fire that has long been integral to private sector culture.

This is not to say that we should not also seek more sweeping, wholesale reforms of the public sector. Those, though, would require considerably more time and consideration. Beginning with smaller tweaks can have a significant impact.

This is the essence of the “theory of nudge”, as proposed by James Wilk and DJ Stewart, among others. For any government to further overburden the current bloated and inefficient public sector – without even acknowledging the need for reform – would be an act of grand self-harm.

The public sector needs fundamental reform as a matter of great urgency. Both parties need to seriously consider how they will go about this if they are serious about implementing radical change.

Written by Saqib Qureshi

Dr. Saqib Qureshi is a senior business strategist and expert on democratic policy development who has advised governments in Canada, London, Washington DC and Dubai.
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