Archive for February, 2012

Street-level bureaucrats in times of cutbacks

Former students will know the emphasis I place on Lipsky’s work on street-level bureaucracy.  I was recently asked to write something about the book and its value for a journal, Teaching Public Administration.  Re-reading the book was illuminating, partly because it reminded me of why I find it so useful as a framework for thinking about practice.  But I saw more in it as well.  It was written in the midst of the financial crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s and, in this context, the emphasis on rationing and the balancing of the competing demands of clients and management come across more acutely.  But it also connects well to other themes that will be familiar to students studying more contemporary policy developments.  Indeed, perhaps the work is more relevant and useful today than it has ever been?

The article is at:

Public welfare and private interests

Emma Harrison and A4E is perhaps the most egregious example, but there is reason for wider concern over the private interests that are shaping welfare reforms at present.  The Observer today ( has detailed some of those companies taking work and contracts as part of the current reforms.  But there have been other stories that underline the private interests in public spending.  GSK, the UK’s largest pharmaceutical company, has complained that the government is delaying approval of its latest drugs as a way of saving money.  The undertone in their argument was that, if the government didn’t pay, GSK would have to go overseas.

Ironic, really.  The government is trying to save money by weeding out the scroungers, the workshy etc.  Yet so many of them seem to be party donors?

A burning desire to leave

Lord Birt (aka John Birt, former DG of the BBC and, later, advisor to Tony Blair) spoke at the university yesterday in their ‘Burning Issues’ series.  His title – ‘Why government is ineffective’.  I now understand something of the dislike (I am, perhaps, understating this) he provoked among many at the BBC and in government.  We were treated to one of the worst public lectures I have attended.

He started with a few anecdotes about his past and then listed his own CV.  This was followed by an idiot’s guide to strategy and the effective organisation (and it would fail as a first year undergraduate essay on the subject).  In fact, this was his ‘philosophy’ – it is what he uses all the time in all organisations!  So adaptable!  We were also told that the private equity model is his idea of how to transform public services.  Incoherent.  And we were now half way through!

The remainder of the lecture included a few remarks about the BBC (four times the resources required, no HR function when he took over) and then a list of the failings of the public sector, backed up by no evidence or anecdotes.  It was all confidential, he couldn’t name names.  But waste was ‘huge’.  There were ‘many’ examples of lack of strategic vision.  And his profound insights represented little more than a summary of some of the scripts of Yes Minister from the 1980s.  Which suggests that he achieved nothing in his years in government!!

His solution was straight out of the 1979-97 Thatcher/Major governments.  Disaggregation and competition.  But he had just criticised the civil service for lack of coherence and coordination in their response to difficult problems.  Really ill-thought out stuff.

But all delivered in that arrogant and softly spoken manner that earned him such contempt.  On getting home, I put on the episodes of The Thick Of It in which Julius Nicholson (a parody of John Birt and Michael Barber – then Blair’s Director of the Delivery Unit) waffles and blusters in an inane and supercilious way.

I felt like walking out and only wish it were the time and place to launch into one of Malcolm Tucker’s abusive tirades.