Three things have happened to me over the summer break which have led me to think about the power of people and relationships in the public sphere. Blimey that sounds pompous – let me tell the stories and then we’ll see if there is any political learning from these experiences.
First, my son got a summer job as a park-keeper. The council decided to employ a ‘uniformed presence’ during the school summer holidays for evenings in the park. He had to pick up litter, but most of his time was spent talking to the young people, the families and the dog-walkers and just being there. Episodes of antisocial behaviour and vandalism were much lower than last year when there was no park keeper and many people have commented that they were ‘glad someone was there’.
Second, my dad had emergency appendix surgery during our family holiday in Portugal. During his stay, the nurses spent time talking to him despite the language barrier, recognised when he was feeling particularly worried and went off to find a doctor on a Sunday evening who also spent time talking and listening and finally clapped and waved when he was discharged. They made a frightening and stressful time (almost) enjoyable.
Third, many have noted that in a fantastic Olympic summer the volunteers were the surprise stars. The number, the enthusiasm and the variety made me smile on each occasion that I came into contact with them. I don’t know how they were trained, but it felt to me as if they had been given considerable freedom and licence to relate to people in the way that they felt most comfortable with. There wasn’t any of the ‘have a nice day’ false corporate approach which always leaves me feeling like a product rather than a person when I’m on the receiving end.
Contrast these experiences with the feeling of a train station with no staff to help you get a ticket; the public building where you have to pick up a number to determine when you’re able to talk to a human being; the police force which doesn’t bother to send anyone round to talk to you when you’ve been the victim of a crime.
I think there are broader lessons from these experiences.
Reducing the number of people working in public services can be a false economy. However, in arguing for public sector workers we need to emphasise the quality of what they do and not just the quantity of them.
We brought about enormous improvements in public services throughout our time in government, but as others have noted, that could feel very top-down and ‘performance management’ to the people actually delivering the services and face-to-face with the public. Unless those at the frontline feel responsibility and commitment to their work, all the performance targets in the world won’t do the job.
A centralised system cannot determine who needs to work where and how they should operate. It was a very local decision to put a park-keeper back in our park. People who work with the public need to be freer to determine how they carry out the tasks they’ve been given. The focus needs to be on results, not on process. And the value of this type of initiative needs to be recognised. There is nothing soft about the skill of relating in a human way to the people you work with or for.
The personal is political. And how we value and promote the power of personal relationships in public services is worthy of further political and policy consideration. Now could be a good time to do it.
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