For a number of reasons, I have done a little bit of reading around about the experience of severe cuts in public spending in the 1970s in the US and 1980s in the UK. In particular, a special issue of Public Administration Review from 1978 has some interesting observations on US experience drawing in part on the bankrupting of New York City. One of the articles identified three sorts of public service leaders who might emerge in times of hardship (and in interpreting the three, I have exaggerated them for ease of discussion):
- the figurehead – someone unable to cope who has risen when times were easy without any discernible talent or ability to lead;
- the cut-the-fat tough guy – someone who sees their opersonal career as being advanced by a macho ability to make cuts, with little regard to the consequences; and
- the revitalising entrepreneur – someone who makes the crisis work to achieve significant change in the fundamentals, the what and how of public services.
If we look at our current leadership and our future possibilities, how do they stack up against this? It looks grim to me.