In recent years the public sector has been attacked by a virulent bug called neophilia, defined in my medical dictionary as a fixation with the new, the trendy, the ‘transformative’. The dictionary adds: neophilia is a disease preceded by acute symptoms of panic and stress.
The cause is a loss of intellectual confidence, a failure of nerve – a fear (on the part of the left) that we are on the wrong side of history. The disease seems to persist, despite the collapse not just of markets but of the ideas base on which market ideology has subsisted. So we still hear ‘reform’ being touted as the solution for public sector ills, meaning the introduction of the very market norms that have imploded in banking and finance; we still see veneration of ‘choice’ when public provision rests on necessary uniformity; we hear attacks on professionalism when one of the strengths of the public sector is to muster expert knowledge for public benefit.
What is worse is that many of the ‘new’ ideas turn out to be old hat tricked out in new finery. Because the public sector has, intellectually speaking, been on the back foot for so long, it has been unable to build up resistance to a peculiar class of parasite, the zombie idea. The phrase was coined by Professor Alan Maynard of York University for how, especially in the health service, old discredited ideas about competition keep reappearing despite empirical evidence, despite trial and failure.
Of course conventional wisdom should be challenged. But on the basis of experiment, empirical caution and a profound understanding of the inherent complexity of public sector organisations subject to democracy, fiscal control and often hyper active multiple accountability.
That’s what has been missing as the public sector has sucked up to gurus, consultants and …think tanks. Examples: contractorisation, commissioning, localism, devolution, performance related pay, ‘lean’, ‘Six Sigma’, ‘total quality management’, public value, choice …transformation, ‘governance’.
In their study of private sector management Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton (Hard Fact, Dangerous Half Truths and Total Nonsense, 2006) describe the neophiliac condition. Related to the desire for new is the desire for big – the big idea, the big study, the big innovation. Unfortunately, they rarely if ever happen. Even in the physical sciences, close examination of so-called breakthroughs nearly always reveals painstaking, incremental work that finally is recognised as a big insight.
Public services have to adapt, to changing demography, to financial opportunity and constraint. But let’s be suspicious of breakthrough ideas and realistic about timetables for change. Bright ideas are welcome but let’s save the ‘silver bullets’ for the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2012 Fabian Review.