Confusing propriety, efficiency and control

In the late 2000s, I attended a public policy seminar in Edinburgh exploring issues of public sector delivery. I had come to present the Welsh experience of forging collective common purpose between the Welsh Government Housing Department, the social housing sector, tenant interests and local government.

It became clear early on in the event that there was quite a divide between the participants – one that not even the compulsory scotch whisky tasting event could bridge! Many came with an expectation of discussing better target setting, performance management, outsourcing and competitive processes. These participants had bought in pretty completely to the New Public Management which was all the rage from the mid ’90s and still shapes the debate about public service delivery to this day. As we sat around the board room table, I imagined them moving models of schools and teachers across a large map as they ‘managed delivery’.

The minority of us had come with a view of collaborative and networked governance where the aim was flexible delivery based in common understanding of goals and informed by local circumstances. In the Welsh housing sector, we had sought to move to this approach following a commissioned independent review of delivery relations. We took the broad findings of the review report and broke down the groups of recommendations into joint working groups, each chaired by a different part of the sector. Over a few months the groups agreed a common approach to change. The language was one of mutual trust and common purpose in a sector whose reason to exist – though we had been at risk of forgetting it – was supporting people in most need. There was still regard for propriety in ensuring monies were properly applied, but we did not collectively mistake that with a controlling urge for detailed rules, targets and performance indicators, concocted in the name of some imagined centralized general efficiency. Our Edinburgh seminar participants looked bemused and kept asking: “but how do you measure it?”

The Welsh approach proved its worth when the banking crash came in 2007-08 and large numbers of people in the UK were put at risk of becoming homeless. The Welsh Government agreed its approach with the housing sector in a single meeting, including funding allocations and basic goals. The program was up and running quickly based on a very short guidance note on process and priorities. The UK program took much longer to develop and had a guidance note that could have usefully propped up a table-leg. The Welsh program saw more families supported than did the UK one, despite the mismatch in population size.

The lesson is that seeking control though metrics and competition and having a positive real-world impact are often too very different things. Above all, a controlling approach is based in an assumption that the government body knows best and that the delivery answers are clear and universal. It also tends to conflate the idea of controls based on a search for efficiency with the needs of basic propriety in spending, presumably because local delivery is inherently not to be trusted.

Matthew Quinn

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