From the archive: Why do some people hate public service?

Michael Harris /   November 18, 2015 at 8:41 PM 5,170 views


Today [18th November] was the third #OurDay event. A week before George Osborne sets out the results from his Comprehensive Spending Review, councillors and local authority staff from across England and Wales took to Twitter to demonstrate what they do.

#OurDay is organised by the Local Government Association and Knowledge Hub. Last year’s event generated 16,564 tweets from 8,079 different Twitter accounts. Despite 40% cuts to their budgets and a five-year pay freeze, #OurDay highlights what local public servants do to make our society function and to make people’s lives just a little bit (or quite a lot) better everyday.

Well, haters gonna hate. Last week, Matthew Parris had a good sneer in Rupert Murdoch’s Times by arguing that ‘Public sector whingers are heading for a fall’ (£ – but please don’t bother). It was pretty familiar stuff, but just to provide a flavour:

“This has been a week when shroud-waving by public sector spokesmen intent on protecting their patches has hit pantomime proportions. …Be it by lawyers, doctors or hospital porters, the insinuation that to serve the public somehow elevates you above the argument about what can be afforded, warps our attitudes. It sentimentalises. It turns employees into glorified charity workers who just happen to be drawing a salary. Implicitly it insults those who work in the private sector. But the private sector is a public service provider too …There are no important moral differences.

Some of the public sector disagree. They feel authorised by their moral status to take hostages – patients, motorists, people in burning buildings. So let me, finally, surprise you, by saying I kind of welcome that. It will degrade – has already degraded – the claims by public service providers to superior virtue. There they sit. The branch is creaking. The saw is sawing. Bring on the fall.”


Not content to let it go, Parris had another pop in The Spectator on Saturday (‘Here’s what’s wrong with the ‘public sector ethos’’). Parris had, as a result of the considerable reaction generated by his Times piece, realised that people might reasonably expect conservatives to have a bit more respect for the idea of ‘public service’ – of duty and of working for the public good.

Parris however chose to double down (for good measure, he also had a go at those who work in the voluntary sector). But in doing so he made his purpose even clearer:

“I wonder whether the ‘public service ethos’ does more harm than good. Used, variously, as an argument against trying to measure the value of public sector activity…, trying to impose efficiency reforms…, and against virtually any cuts to any public service at all…, a central belief in many public servants’ minds is that they are working for the greater good and have no vested interests of their own, and are therefore above the selfish arguments of the rest of us. This poisons rational consideration of costs and benefits in the public sector.”

Let’s leave aside the question of what ‘public value’ is created by punditry (anyone can do it these days, after all). I think it would be difficult to argue with a straight face, as Parris seems to, that the public sector has in any way successfully resisted the apparatus of ‘rational consideration’ over the past couple of decades, whether in the form of never-ending ‘efficiencies’, reorganisations, performance management, targets and all the rest, not to mention cuts. I also thought it was increasingly acknowledged, at least by those with any passing acquaintance with the reality of public services, that all this so-called ‘new public management’ had often served to increase bureaucracy and distract public servants from doing what they should be doing, which is serving the public.

Another way of putting it: As a result of endless ‘reform’, is the problem that we have too much ‘public service ethos’ in our public services today – or too little?

There’s no need to sanctify the public sector – just a ‘thanks’ now and again might be nice (and #OurDay is only one day a year, so it’s not too much to bear). And you can disagree with this or that strike. But it seems a bit precious to complain when disgruntled public sector workers and their representatives try to marshal the best possible arguments they can in defence of their services, and yes, their working conditions. What are they supposed to do, just roll over?

What’s really revealed by Parris’ little tirades though is that, as if we didn’t already know it, the Thatcherite victory over conservatism – traditional conservatism – is complete. There is no such thing as society. By definition then, there can be no such thing as ‘serving’ it. Nothing exists, or deserves to exist, beyond ‘rational considerations’, and anyone who claims otherwise must be lying for their own advantage.

And yet, in this week of all weeks, with all of the talk of the importance of ‘values’ going around (especially from the right), perhaps now might not be the best time to be criticising others for claiming that they are motivated in part by wanting to serve a civilised society rather than destroy it.

And it won’t be the newspaper pundits who’ll be out there keeping our streets safe tonight, will it?

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