04 April 2006


Tim Coates, a former head of Waterstone's (a book store), is trying to persuade the British Government to spend more on books for libraries. His comments on the UK are worth quoting at length (my emphasis):

Half the management in this country is public sector. The rules are different: income does not depend on judgment, efficiency or perfomance; cash is available; there is no such thing as bankruptcy and nor are there the disciplines, anxieties, skills and systems which are used to avoid it. Employment is secure and very well paid. Projects thrive on persuasive plans but rarely on actual outcomes. To a private sector manager, the regime is unfamiliar.

We have become used to the idea that only a small portion of charitable donations each their intended recipients; we should get used to the idea that the great part of the money we thought was for public service will never reach any public beneficiary. We live in an economy which is the travelling equivalent of a crowded roundabout. Huge amounts of public funds travel on a journey which goes nowhere in an unpleasant and wasteful manner.

For seven years I have studied the public library service in both central and local government where most of the operation is managed. This is a £1.2bn pa operation which has no accounts, no boards of directors, no planning or budgeting, no measurement of performance and no management of the kind a garage mechanic would recognise. It is a disaster from the tip of its branches to the lengths of it ancient roots. Use of the service has fallen to half its rather successful level of twenty years ago and no one can even agree whether that is a good thing or a bad one. No junior manager learns the basic skills of "yes" or "no" from his senior- because he, or she never learned those skills either. The operation is a national disgrace and nobody even knows.

We have an extremely and potentially devastating problem of the economy in this country and it is the management of public sector activities. We worry about political incompetence, global warming and the management of our soccer team. We should be sensible and start worrying about the management of public services. That really is frightening.

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