Is commercialism destroying the ethos of the public sector?

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By Catherine Mangan, Director of Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV)
School of Government & Society, University of Birmingham

Sunday 23 June marks the UN Public Service Day, celebrating the value and virtue of public service to the community. On this day, it is important to question whether the concept of a public service ethos can survive the drive for commerciality.

We know that in the UK, a strong public service ethos has enduring importance and that ‘wanting to serve the public’ is a powerful motivator for those joining the public sector. However, our work with graduates joining local government reveals that new entrants believe that public service values are changing; challenged by the need to become more commercially minded. They see a financial aspect to their sense of a public service ethos – either in terms of delivering value for money for citizens, or – in the negative – as being the absence of a profit motive.

INLOGOV is often asked to run development sessions on commerciality. If the aim of having more commercially minded public servants is about achieving increased value through better commissioning, procurement and contracting processes, then that makes sense. If more commercial nous leads to reduced failure demand and more efficient services, which result in savings that can be ploughed back into delivering improved outcomes then clearly the balance between public service ethos and commerciality is right. However, we find that the balance sometimes tips over into a focus on the ultimate aim as the achievement of the commercial venture in itself. For example, one council, where poverty, air pollution and obesity are three huge challenges, has just introduced parking charges for all the city parks. Where is the value, other than economic value, in that decision?

Austerity is challenging the public service ethos, and resulting in destructive value. Public servants and politicians who entered public service to ‘do good’ are now in the business of doing ‘least harm’. A recent Panorama programme, which highlighted the pressures on social care, illustrated the anxiety and hopelessness felt by politicians and officers alike as they cut care services to old and frail people as they sought to balance the books.

Risk aversion and a lack of trust between public servants and residents are also driving value out of the system. Concepts such as personalisation in social care, with its foundations of choice and control, are being eroded as public servants tighten their grip on how public funding is spent. A survey last year found that nearly half of all councils are using pre-payment cards for people who hold personal budgets, rather than giving them the funding direct. These cards restrict choice by banning spending on alcohol, gambling, dating or adult services, payment for petrol and video games. One in three councils stipulate that all spending must be deemed to comply with the individual’s care and support plan. How does a restrictive process such as this support the value of choice and control?

This sense of a chipping away at the public service ethos may be one of the reasons why new entrants into the workforce are questioning whether the public sector is the place in which they can make the most impact and add the most value. There is evidence emerging across developed countries that millennials, and the Gen Z following them into the workplace, feel that they can achieve more value for citizens by working in a social enterprise, through their own start-up, or through an NGO. Equally, the research we are doing into the Future of Public Service Leadership suggests that one of the most important things Gen Z look for in a leader is shared values, and where these do not exist, they are willing to walk away.

So, on this public service day, it is important to question whether commercialism is destroying the public sector ethos and how can our public services retain the values to attract a new generation of public servants?


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