The incredible shrinking public sector…

There’s a lot of heat and not too much light in the debate about the public sector at the moment.  What we don’t get is balance – the pros and cons. I’m less worried about entitlements, more concerned to establish what a sensible limit to the public sector should be.

One current shibboleth: public sector workers are overpaid and over-pensioned.  The truth: some are, some senior execs are, most aren’t, most get by. They’ve accepted long years of being relatively underpaid (though with the prospect of a good pension) and now pay is better they find themselves pilloried – with a broad perception that they’re a) parasitical and b) doing work that’s dispensable.  

Another: hit the management hard, protect the front line. There’s a perception out there that you can get rid of the support staff and managers and leave the front line untouched. Maybe, but then the nurses will have much less time for patients, and teachers for pupils.

And a third: the private sector should take on public sector roles. In the health service, schools, defence? Some areas the state does much much better.

Let’s think for a moment about what everyone does in the private sector. Technology and efficiencies and outsourcing mean there are many fewer productive, fewer manufacturing jobs in the private sector these days.  Jobs are in the service sector, maybe (maybe not) add to the quality of life, but aren’t productive in the ordinary sense of the word. Now, wouldn’t it be better if we were paying a little more into schools and NHS budget (if wisely spent) – and less buying new fridges or a gourmet meal or even a Big Mac twice a week? We need a productive, value-adding base to the economy but it simply can’t be the size it used to be. Just what are the private-sector jobs that everyone will be doing if we have public expenditure down to 40% of GDP – and full(ish) employment? Will they be jobs worth doing? And conversely, easily shaken out as soon as the economy turns down?

All the talk is about work and employment, but the reality is as it has been for decades that most of us have more and more leisure on our hands. We’ve sidelined a debate that goes back to Veblen, and has an immediate relevance.

Back to the public sector. Hit it too hard and we do a lot of damage. We’re in a world of portfolio workers, short-term contracts, outsourcing, a world where loyalty, trust and commitment are much harder to find. That may be inevitable for the private sector these days, but must it be for the public sector, with all its public-facing roles?  We must make certain it isn’t.

And a concomitant: if we’re not showing loyalty and commitment in our working lives, what chance our lives in our local community? We’re in danger of losing the habit – if we even still have it – of getting out there. The big society looks increasingly like a graft that won’t take.

The public sector isn’t sacrosanct. Staffing levels and pensions will and should take a hit. But for all our sakes we should tread carefully.

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