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Can we stop this constant public service reorganisation?

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In Tony Travers’ 9 August LGC column, he discusses the British phenomenon of constant public sector reorganisations.

I shortly start my sixtieth continuous year of service in the public sector. I have been midwife at the birth of organisations, labouring to create commitment, drive and enthusiasm among their staff.

I have been motivated by ambition and pay, but also by the belief that my work served the public.

Yet every public sector organisation for which I have worked has been abolished, with the single exception of the City of Westminster. Six local authorities, four NHS bodies and three national agencies have disappeared like snow in summer.

To what advantage?

The bewildering structural changes in the NHS are legendary: the same job-holder can have had six different employers over the last ten years.

The regular bonfires of quangos rarely provide savings but incur transitional costs as functions are relocated.

The piecemeal changes in local government have produced a patchwork quilt both difficult to understand and impossible to justify.

Heroic efforts – like the growth of the City Region concept – are made to overcome the disadvantages of reorganisations.

Their complexity is further confused by the use of five different systems of voting.

Contrast constant organizational change with the paralysis of the anachronistic taxation system.

Property valuations have been unchanged for 22 years. The Poll Tax was prompted by valuations unchanged for just 17 years.

Organisational change is not the only symptom of neophilia. Countless government initiatives have come and gone.

Sir Robert Kerslake, when chief executive of Sheffield City Council, counted 150 different audit trails arising from those initiatives. It is a safe bet that few if any still subsist.

All were launched with enthusiasm, to be dropped as they started to bear fruit.

The actual cost of all this change is substantial. The opportunity cost is even greater.

Even worse is the cynicism it has bred in the minds of public servants. How can you gain their commitment to enterprises which experience tells them will be transitory?

The restless yen for reorganisation seems to be common to all political parties. Is there a way of inoculating governments against this peculiarly British disease?

Sir Rodney Brooke CBE has been chief executive of West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, the City of Westminster Council and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.

Among other roles in the public sector, he is currently chair of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

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