Oliver Letwin's remarks last week that public service providers need to experience discipline and fear prompted a predictable and somewhat understandable backlash. But his published comments left me wondering - who exactly is he talking about? Front line employees? Managers? Leaders?
I have a great deal of sympathy with the sentiment he expressed, having worked in the public sector as a consultant and employee, and like many people experiencing service from the sublime to the ridiculous - but if he is referring to front line employees he is allowing the greatest culprits to escape critical scrutiny and a necessary look in the mirror.
I've known many people, talented people, who sought out careers in the public sector above financial reward because that was what was most important to them - doing a job where you can make an impact on the lives of those less fortunate, vulnerable, or work to make our society and its systems more effective.
And they end up leaving not because they have lost any of the commitment around what they have wanted to do - but that they have tired of poor management and leadership that is over controlling, telling them not just what to do but how. Park your brain at the door - and do what you are told.
I'm not saying that every private sector employer is going to be better, far from it, but in my experience when there is an obvious bottom line poor management style can become visible sooner. Some of the most odious politics and power games I've witnessed have been in public sector organisations. Levels of turnover and productivity can be blamed on other circumstances only so often - eventually a poor manager can or will be found out before they do more harm.
So Mr Letwin, here is a suggestion.
Identify the organisations that concern you most, and let's start from the top. Are the leaders up to the job? Are the managers up to the job? Effective people at this level can turn the organisation around by improving productivity and performance through how they lead and manage.
What is it they do?
There are patterns that emerge from research into effective teams, job satisfaction and even work stress. They create clarity of role, they allow employees to have a degree of involvement in how they do their job, they help them see how their job, no matter how small, fits into the big picture - and they praise and recognize good performance frequently.
I'm struggling to recall anything about fear in the literature. But a feature of great managers is also that they help people realize if they are in the wrong job, and move on with a degree of dignity rather than being labelled as poor performers.
You see, many employees in the public sector already live in fear, from the incompetence and ineptitude of those who manage and lead them.