Why are our public services demoralised?

- Friday, 26th January 2001

 

The issue which is top of people?s concerns at the house meetings I hold street by street throughout my constituency is the growing problems of our public services.

People ? many of them teachers ? have complained that local schools are suffering a recruitment crisis. Good teachers are demoralised and leaving in records numbers. Local heads confirmed to me recently that they simply cannot replace them. Performance of local hospitals has measurably declined: mortality rates in four out of the five hospitals surrounding this constituency are worse than when the Conservatives left office. Recent patients complain about visibly dirty wards and demoralised nurses. There are fewer police on the beat. They, too, are demoralised by time spent on paperwork and by allegations they are institutionally racist.

This government claims it is spending lots more money. People know they are paying higher taxes. So after four years in power why do the problems of our public services seem worse not better?

At one recent meeting several people speaking from personal experience said large organisations ? public or private ? if centrally controlled can absorb limitless amounts of money with little getting through to better services. Successful businesses have found the only way to get better value is to delegate decision making to small units, to give them responsibility for improving services and to let users judge their quality. This motivates employees far better, raises their morale and results in a steadily improving quality of service.

Of course health, education and policing are not ?commodities? that we can buy or sell like food or cars. Nor should we try to treat them like businesses. But our health service, schools and police force could benefit from these lessons.

Teachers, health professionals and police have been demoralised by the accelerating stream of edicts from on high telling them how to do their job. Whitehall bureaucrats and Labour Ministers (not one of whom has ever run a whelk stall) think they know best how to teach, nurse and police. They launch initiatives to get good headlines. But the effect is invariably to de-motivate the public servants who actually have to deliver. The idea of a ?literacy hour? got a good press. So I got hold of the regulations. They lay down legally binding rules telling every teacher what they must do in the first 10 minutes, then the next 15 minutes and so on throughout the hour week by week. This is ludicrous and demeaning to teachers who should be free to adapt to the specific needs of their pupils.

Of course Conservative Ministers were not free of the hubris which leads to too many centrally imposed, publicity driven, disruptive initiatives But one of the benefits of a term in Opposition has been that it forces you to think where you went wrong.

That is why the main drive of Conservative policies to improve the public services is to delegate decision making to schools, hospitals and police precincts; to give teachers, medical staff and police more professional responsibility; and, where appropriate, to judge by results not by monitoring procedures followed.

At the next election the choice between the parties will not be on the amount of extra resources. Both parties are committed to the same spending plans on health and education. So the big difference will be how those services are to be run. Labour remains hooked on ever more centralised control despite the fact that it is failing here as everywhere else it has been tried. Conservatives will be offering delegation, responsibility and choice.

 

 

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Why are our public services demoralised?

 

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