That’s right. Bureaucrats.
I’ve been struck over the last couple of days by an oft-repeated phrase. I’ve heard it so often I think it must be part of the media training that our political classes get these days. The phrase is formulated in a variety of ways but essentially boils down to something like this,
“Of course we should be spending the money we have at the front line and not on faceless bureaucrats … ‘
But who do they mean?
Changes to the NHS are all over the news just now. I heard an MP from the coalition in near ecstasy over the abolition of Labour’s ‘bureaucratic’ PCTs. Layers of management, unnecessary management at that, stripped away. Hooray! Except … well, how about the Public Health work of PCTs? Oh, that’s important. Better keep that so let’s shift it over to local government.
Oh, then there’s the information gathering and analysis you need to understand the health and healthcare needs of the residents served by GPs. Now that’s important too. Better keep that. Why not let those folks be employed by private sector organisations?
Prescribing advice? Better keep that somewhere. Specialist commissioning for rare conditions? Oh, let’s keep that. Referral management? Yes, we’ll keep that too.
So all those faceless bureaucrats can go apart from those involved in: public health; health data gathering and analysis; prescribing advice; commissioning support; and, referral management. Job done.
Then there’s all the jobsworths in local government. They can go. Afterall when did a bureaucrat ever have anything to do with a road repair? Or building schools? Or helping our elderly relatives live independently? Or stopping anti-social behaviour? Or gritting roads?
You’ll catch my drift of course.
Napoleon said an army marches on its stomach. Public services march, if they do at all, because of the quiet diligence of people doing the boring stuff of management and administration. I don’t think many politicians of whatever party get that truth. Tony Blair certainly didn’t and it doesn’t look like either of his successors do either.
Mr Blair famously complained about the scars on his back from trying to reform public services. But I think our political classes have drawn the wrong conclusion. They do so because while they are expert in launching change they are ignorant, to are large extent, about how change gets implemented.
My experience tells me that very few change programmes are successful simply because someone gets parachuted in, shouts ‘follow me’ and everyone takes off in the same direction. Similarly, standing behind your hapless troops with your own ‘heavies’ prodding the lumpen staff towards the guns at bayonet point doesn’t work well either.
Good administration, the effective running of well-designed systems to keep ‘frontline’ staff in place doing the work they do doesn’t just happen. But the staff work that’s needed is dull and full of detail. It doesn’t get done by news release or soundbite. Or by the photogenic stars of public service with whom politicians always like to be pictured.
Of course I am realistic about my campaign for good administration. Faceless bureaucrats are too easy a target to pass up.
If you are old enough for all the current public debate to feel a bit like the 1980s all over again you might enjoy the following piece of nostalgia … tempus non mutanda.