Have some public servants lost sight of what they are there for?


 The central purpose of all publicly owned and funded organisations should be to increase public value. In return, organisations gain legitimacy from the public they serve, and – ideally – leadership, innovation, improved service, greater efficiencies and greater job satisfaction should follow.

 The concept of public value is an attempt to measure the total benefits which flow from government action. Like private value, it incorporates the benefits derived from personal consumption of public services. Public servants and the organisations they populate must give a continuous account of how they use taxpayers’ money and how they add value. Too many, it has to be said, don’t bother. Parliament which is doing a poor job of holding itself to account, let alone the Executive and its agencies, has seemingly lost its way, but may slowly be coming to terms with this fact. The result in the meantime is the democratic deficit. That is the perceived gap between what the citizens expect from their public servants and what they in fact deliver. There is little doubt that the democratic deficit exists and along with it a growing cynicism among the electorate, which is unhealthy for our democracy.

But it is unfair simply to focus on MPs in this respect.

Too many civil servants and quangocrats who have largely evaded the accountability spotlight seem not even to pay lip service to the concept of public value nor are held to account for the way they disburse taxpayers money.

Far too many Quangos for instance fail the transparency test in that they only measure their inputs ie how many conferences they run not their outputs (those actions that for instance measurably improve performance) and pay too little attention to the longer term outcomes of their activities. One of the leading thinkers on public value is Mark Moore who published Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government in 1995.It had a significant impact at the time and has influenced among others Professor Michael Barber who refers to it several times in is book Instruction to Deliver, his account of how he and the Delivery unit sought to improve public service delivery across the board with mixed results. Moore’s strategic triangle posits that a strategy for a public sector organization must meet three broad tests It must: firstly be aimed at creating something substantively valuable (i.e. constitute public value); secondly be legitimate and politically sustainable (i.e. attract sufficient ongoing support – and concomitant resources – from political and other stakeholders and third be operationally and administratively feasible. Public value is not that easy to define but The Work Foundation, which has done much good work in this area had a good stab at it .Public value it says is what the public values, and it is the role of public managers to help determine through the democratic processes of deliberation and public engagement what social outcomes are desirable. It is through such processes that public managers can help to articulate collective citizens’ preferences and thereby redress the ‘democratic deficit’ between public services and citizens. It is this very deficit – which emphasizes the legitimacy of public institutions and the public’s trust in them to provide high-quality services to the wider citizenry and meet high customer standards – that gives us the key reasons to be interested in public value as a concept. Crucially, Public value encompasses not only outputs but also outcomes, that is, impacts upon those who enjoy the value/good in question or upon states of nature important to those people. Moore’s critique finds ‘Public value’ focuses on: a wider range of value than public goods; more than outputs; and what has meaning for people, rather than what a public-sector decision-maker might presume is best for them. (Whitehall knows best). More significantly, it connotes an active sense of adding value, rather than a passive sense that is merely of safeguarding the public interests. The Public value approach has the potential to offer a broader way of measuring government performance and guiding policy decisions. Clearly there may well be some difficulty in ‘operationalising’ public value and developing a wide range of measures that could appropriately capture the value in differing public services. Indeed new public value measures could mean a growth in monitoring and auditing exercises at a time when many want to move in the opposite direction. And some services are not easily measurable. But within public services you have some areas now which are very heavily monitored and others where the exact opposite occurs, and these imbalances could very easily be addressed. Moore said that “Public Service managers need an account of the value their organizations produce. Each day, their organizations’ operations consume public resources and their operations produce real consequences for society – intended or not. If the managers cannot account for the value of these efforts with both a story and demonstrated accomplishments then the legitimacy of their enterprise is undermined and, with that, their capacity to lead’ (Moore 1995: 57).

You don’t have to be a political scientist to realize that many of our public institutions have lost sight of the need to justify their existence, measure their performance, show transparency and accountability and demonstrate to taxpayers that that they add value and positively effect outcomes. Too often when they do attempt to measure their performance they choose the means of measurement. The failure to pursue public value applies to many though not all Government departments and quasi government agencies.

 Politicians and civil servants should revisit the concept of public value to help reduce the democratic deficit. It can help too to guide them in rationalizing the bureaucracy, in cutting costs and importantly help them stem the resulting corrosive cynicism that increasingly characterizes the mood in many sections of society towards public servants generally, reflected, of course, in the media.

Much of this isn’t warranted or fair. But then again rather too much probably is.


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