Want to improve public services? Work out how to fix my scaffolding

I’ve spent far too much time staring at scaffolding over the last seven years. The council keeps on coming back and putting up scaffolding outside my house. (I’m a council freeholder so the council is responsible for the roof and guttering.)

There’s much I could write about the things that have gone wrong, starting with just how many times do you have to come and repair a roof? There’s the fun of the fiasco when the council nearly had two different scaffolding firms turn up at the same time to put scaffolding in the same place. Or the casual arrogance and absurd secrecy of the gagging order I was presented on one occasion.

But the issue with the widest implications is the number of months that scaffolding has been left standing outside the house, unused week after week, both during times of Gordon Brown largesse and during times of George Osborne austerity. Scaffolding isn’t cheap. So why has an expensive asset been left unused outside my home for so long in total over the years? (Keen as I am on infrastructure investment, ‘a scaffold for every home’ isn’t an election slogan I’ll be running any time soon.)

If you can crack my scaffolding problem, then you can crack much else with our public services. (As a warm-up, try cracking the typing conundrum first and perhaps you can pick up some clues from the success of gov.uk. But back to the scaffolding…)

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First off, financial incentives are not working. With the scaffolding that is because it is supplied under a bulk contract which means that there isn’t a charge per day but rather a fixed fee. As a result, there’s no financial incentive for anyone involved to only use scaffolding for the minimum period possible. But abolish bulk contracts? Ban fixed fees across the board? Neither are plausible policies when you think about the number of times either or both make sense. If you want something more than an idea about how to fix one specific problem in one specific place, you need a different tack.

The lack of financial pressure, in this case, is a bad move, but it’s only a problem because the rest of the system has failed too. No-one’s job or promotion/pay rise prospects are realistically on the line when scaffolding is up for too long. Even though I’ve pursued all the mistakes over the years with rather more vigour that a typical resident, and helped get two scaffolding contractors sacked along the way, I’ve repeatedly encountered the problem that lots of people doing things a bit badly results in a dreadful service for me, but no-one in the firing line for the failures as for each individual it’s just one thing done not quite well enough. That is always going to be the fate of an individual facing a large service. Your own individual fate – save for a few awful tragedies – just doesn’t register as a big enough problem.

Even if you add up all the different compensation payments I have received, from the two figure up to the [redacted due to gagging order], it is barely a blip in the turnover of the various multi-million pound organisations involved.

So perhaps the answer is about performance standards, with minimum requirements that have to be met come what may? That way, even one person being messed around a bit can become a crunch issue if it slips the wrong side of a must-hit target.

Yet they have not only not really helped me; they have even hindered. One oddity has been the way in which emails from me have been treated badly – being immediately put into a system for a 10 day response even if from their content it is obvious that a quicker response would be appropriate. Why stick then in the 10 day queue regardless? Because that is the performance standard, backed up by financial penalties, that applies. A 10-day response when a 1-day response would have been better and was possible doesn’t cause a problem. An 11-day response instead of a 10 days response does. So just as schools worry too much about the people on the C/D borderline because of the targets for A-C grades, those dealing with messages from the public worry about the 10/11 day borderline and other responses suffer as a result.

It is tempting therefore to imagine an ever more complicated set of standards that have to be met. Tempting that is until you remember how sprouting fearsomely complicated sets of standards has so often gone wrong.

So is there a bigger picture answer to all this? I think there is – and it’s that public services should rely much more on one simple measure: ask people if they are happy with the service provided and have that as the standard that the public service spirited are inspired by, those keen for a promotion and pay rise know they need to worry about or those hoping to hold on to a public sector contract know they need to meet.

Let the individuals worry and work out for themselves what matters in each case to make sure the public are happy with the service provided to them (notice the clue in ‘public service’ there) and hold them to how happy they make people.

It would also be a fundamentally liberal approach, because it removes the idea that someone off in Whitehall or even a town hall decides for the public what counts as a good public service and lays down the standards for us all. Instead, the public gets to decide what matters and those providing the service have to jump to that tune.


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