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FEATURES - A VIEW FROM THE TOP

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Blair views on public services do not stand up to scrutiny, says Keith Yates...
Blair views on public services do not stand up to scrutiny, says Keith Yates

The Prime Minister's new mantra for modernising public services is transformation: 'We're at our best when at our boldest.'

Apparently, we lack self-belief and local government is the custodian of paternalistic smokestack services. The wolves of the modernisation free market are circling our ring-fenced existence.

The prime minister's analysis in his conference speech provides the context for the 21st century public services - but does it stand up to scrutiny?

'Transport is the worst area of public service.' But buses are deregulated, railways are privatised and road maintenance has been sacrificed on the altar of health and education. It is hardly a public service any longer.

'An end to the one-size-fits-all mass-production public service.' For the last dozen years, we have been subjected to imposed targets and central initiatives which have discouraged innovation and diversity. This is what local democracy and accountability can provide if freed of government dictat.

'Demoralised staff don't perform at their best.' And how have league tables, assessments, contracting out and low pay improved morale?

'I don't care who builds them so long as they're on time and on budget.'

Which projects failed? The big NHS projects, government IT systems and offices and defence contracts. Local government, with well-established specifications and tendering procedures, has allowed the private sector to deliver on cost and, more often than not, on time. Private finance initiative projects for schools and infrastructure were not built by government - they happened because of the determination of local government to break down the barriers of bureaucracy established by government and work with private sector partners to deliver them. Additional costs have arisen when activities seen as part of public service - such as community use of schools - have attracted additional charges from the providers.

'Next time we want a turnout of more than 59%.' Well, last month Aberdeenshire Council had a turnout of 66% on a local government by-election held by postal ballot. The scheme they used was not delivered by the private sector or provided by central government - it was tested and passed on by another council at no cost. The ethos of public service altruism is seldom acknowledged by government.

Improvement in local government is happening and we are well able to take advantage of the experience and skills of the private sector when these will make a difference.

The danger for public services is the word public could end up meaning the same as when attached to 'schools' or 'transport' and what 'equality of opportunity and responsibility' is to be found there.

Keith Yates

Chief executive, Stirling Council

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