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The end of the public versus private sector divide?

The traditional labels of ‘public’ and ‘private’ sector need to be put to one side if local government is to survive the budget cuts, to according to a leading HR and leadership expert.

Chris Roebuck, professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School, says that the traditional definitions could actually be a hindrance when trying to develop a sustainable model for the future.

He spoke exclusively to HR Business Network and said that the only way the public sector can survive the incoming massive cuts is by forgetting about the differences between a ‘public’ and private’ organisation.

“We need to stop thinking in little boxes about public sector and private sector. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what you call it. The important question is: ‘is what we’re doing viable?’”

He said councils and primary care trusts cannot think they can tweak and trim their way out of the budget cuts, and need to let go of the idea that they are automatically the right provider of any service.

“The reality is that the public sector is now facing cuts to a level that really no organisation, be it public or commercial, has ever faced. It’s not just about reducing costs and fine-tuning. It demands a complete rethink about how public services are delivered, and who delivers them.

“There are a lot of people who are engaged in wishful thinking, believing that by a little bit of fine-tuning, they are still going to be able to deliver everything they used to deliver before to the same quality and coverage. But that’s not viable.”

Instead, public sector organisations need to go back to the drawing board; forget about what services they provide, and think about how much money they have got to spend, and what they can deliver to a high standard by spending it.

“People inevitably think that their current model is the optimum one, but I say take a step back. The question they need to be asking is: ‘is this service, which we see as a priority, is it optimal for us as a public body to be delivering this, or would it be better delivered by a private sector body, working on our behalf, or by a combination of efforts by two public bodies, for example?

“Is the current way we are doing things viable, or are the cuts so great that we have to go back to a blank sheet of paper, start with the amount of money we’ve got from the government, then work forwards on what we should spend it on.”

He said that rather than a local council or local PCT unquestionably assuming they should be delivering the service, the initial assumption should instead be: ‘if these are our customers, what services do they need, and are we the right people to provide the quality they deserve?’

And he says it’s not necessarily a pessimistic thought.

“This is an opportunity to create a a new world from that blank sheet of paper that’s actually better than the old world.”

He believes that in a few years’ time, there will be far less talk of public and private sector, and instead there will be a group of organisations that focus on service delivery, not on the structure.

“For example, local councils in some areas were set up to deliver a certain set of services a long time ago, and that delivery model has remained reasonably static since those councils were set up maybe 100 years ago. But the world has moved on, so the structures that were right then, and even right 20 years ago, may not be the optimal structures now.”

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Chris Roebuck is chairing a public sector workshop series for HR Business Network in May and October this year, covering how the public sector deals with unprecedented budgetary cuts of 20-30 per cent.