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Public service is not about heroic individualism

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As our glorious summer of sporting success fades into the season of mists and party conferences, there’s no doubt about the feel-good factor generated by the Olympics and Paralympics. It’s as though, as the mayor of London put it, the whole nation has been crop sprayed with serotonin.

But how much inspiration can be drawn from the undoubtedly impressive achievements of the competitors and are we asking the right questions about what public services can learn from the games?

It’s worth pointing out that their success depended on the quiet and smooth operation of basic services, from A&E to street cleaning.

Local authorities and the NHS rose to the challenge, but when the public sector gets it right, few notice.

Good public service is not about heroic individualism but unsung collective efforts to get right many small things, often mundane and tedious, which together make a big difference.

Another contrast is in how we relish the success that comes from competition in sport but recoil from its application to hallowed institutions like the NHS.

Depending on one’s political leanings, this reflects either the good sense of the British people or muddled thinking.

Then there is the paradox of the almost superhuman performance of Paralympians, supported by enhanced transport, physical facilities and lots of volunteers, and the equally awesome year-round struggle of people with disabilities to enjoy a basic quality of life, unrecognised by medals.

A final reflection is how the games defied current orthodoxy by demonstrating what can be achieved by throwing money at something - in this case £9bn, a year’s worth of social care for older people or at least four times councils’ likely annual public health allocations. Quite a price for national wellbeing.

As our latest report, Transforming the delivery of health and social care: the case for fundamental change, shows -transforming our health and care system is a challenge of Olympian scale so lets learn the right lessons.

Richard Humphries, senior fellow, The King’s Fund

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