When are Public Services Successful?

How do we judge the quality of public services? That question is far trickier than it appears.

In some cases the answer seems simple enough: whether trains run on time. But is this really all we want from our trains?

Surely not. They should be safe, too, and reasonably comfortable. They should run not only on time, but at the right time and at reasonable intervals. More important still, they should be affordable. As the list of criteria grows longer, it becomes evident that the most easily measured component, punctuality, is but one of many desirable features, and not necessarily the most significant.

This example is relevant for the politics of public services, which dominates debate in many countries because it lies at the heart of the big problems of both government budgets (and cutting them back) and taxes (and their reduction). In keeping with the spirit of the times, governments introduce business criteria for measuring the efficiency--and the "success," more generally--of public services. This means, above all, that they set performance targets.

So ministers proclaim that street crime will be halved by next spring, or that the proportion of each generation going to universities will be raised to 50% in five years. Waiting lists for hospital beds will be cut by one-third within two years. This method of governance makes it appear that, at long last, we can hold politicians accountable by establishing whether targets have been reached or not.

But is this what we really want? The examples just given are taken from real life. In real life, however, performance targets also have curious side effects.

Cutting hospital waiting lists has led doctors to treat minor illnesses more quickly, leaving those with more serious conditions off the lists altogether. The rapid increase in university students has led to declines in admission standards and the quality of final degrees. Reducing street crime encouraged the police to stop registering certain offenses altogether.

In short, because the availability of government support depends on achieving seemingly precise targets, the incentive to aim for apparent rather than real success becomes an almost overwhelming temptation.

Moreover, many public services are so-called "soft services." Hospital care entails much more than a well-functioning conveyor belt for surgical operations. Education is in all cases about more than achieving a certain "throughput." Social services generally need time, not least the time of caregivers, and their time is often required in unpredictable bursts--a fact utterly at odds with target-mania.

Obviously, public money must not be wasted. But, even here, questions arise.

Consider publicly-funded scientific research. It is in the nature of such research that it proceeds by trial and error. For every road to new discoveries, there will be several negative results and cul-de-sacs. If only highly targeted research with guaranteed success is funded, the probability must be high that innovative researchers emigrate to countries or institutions that have a more generous and appropriate approach to the relationship between funding and success.

While all this may be true, the question remains: how do we make sure that public services are run with reasonable efficiency and produce the results intended by governments and expected by taxpayers?

One answer has to do with input rather than outcomes--that is, with the quality and ethos of those running our public services and working in them. Here the business analogy is simply not sufficient.

The old French administrative training for public services taught both relevant skills and an ethos of civic commitment. The old civil service in countries like Britain or Germany embraced an approach to their tasks that made it a matter of honor to perform well. Self-interest and charity are not the only human motivations; there is also the motive of service, and it needs to be cultivated.

At the other end--that of results--some targets do make sense. Trains should run on time. But beyond that is the human judgment of those most affected. This is why parents' councils for schools, or committees of users of public transport, or patients' boards for hospitals are crucial.

Such bodies may seem weak at first sight. They may even be regarded as a nuisance by professionals. In fact, however, they provide an invaluable check on sloppy and inefficient providers of public services.

We must beware of overly business-guided approaches to public service. At certain times and in certain countries, services that need not be public had to be privatized and run along business lines in order to make them run better--or to keep them running at all. But core public services in health, education, transport, and a few other areas will forever be just that, services , and will therefore need to be appreciated in more complex ways than meeting measurable targets.