Magazine article Public Finance

For the Greater Good

Magazine article Public Finance

For the Greater Good

Article excerpt

'Be more efficient' is currently the number one item on local government's 'to do' list. And that's where I come in. As the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's 'efficiency champion', I am desperately keen for councils to do things better. But we must never lose sight of the fact that the reason we are trying to be more efficient is to expand our purposes. So what are these purposes?

The answer is simple. Ultimately, councils are in the 'local public interest' business. That's why we are central to developing cohesion in communities that can be so easily torn apart by fear, insecurity and terrorism.

Local public service is not just a job: it's an attitude that puts the concerns of a wider public before the concerns of special interest groups. This doesn't imply that public servants ought to be blind to the latter. They need to know about the needs of individuals, of groups of individuals and of the public at large.

The point is that when we are designing and delivering services, questions about the overall public interest dominate our thinking. Should this field be converted to a housing development? Should we use our £1m discretionary spend on social care for elderly people or on improvements to a leisure centre? And which community group merits greater use of the community centre that has been built in the most deprived part of town?

Managing in the public interest doesn't mean that services to everyone take priority over services to small numbers of people. The public interest can be advanced by providing services to groups of very needy individuals or by dealing with the problems caused by a very small group of individuals.

Indeed, public interest concerns prompt us to care for those on the margin, those in most need - not out of naive altruism but out of a sense of solidarity and mutual interdependence. We all want to help a minority today because we might be in a minority tomorrow or because some individuals need protection from others (in their family or in their neighbourhood). More specifically, whether we are providing child protection services, tackling antisocial behaviour or inspecting restaurants, the major test we adopt is: 'Are we acting in the public interest?'

In the modern consumer world, our starting position is that everyone wants naturally to advance their own interests and, if we are honest, this works fine in market economies. Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' of market exchange mechanism ensures that by attending to our own interests the overall economy grows and meets needs and demands as they emerge and change. …

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