Magazine article Public Finance

I Don't like Mondays

Magazine article Public Finance

I Don't like Mondays

Article excerpt

Imagine, if you will, a fictional head of a fictional prison service somewhere on an island country located, oh, let's say in north-west Europe. He's called Will. For Will, it's going to be the week from hell. As he sits in his garden on a quiet Sunday afternoon, he ponders why he ever took this job.

On Monday, the Commission for Racial Equality is going to issue a report about discrimination and violence against black prisoners. Will has seen the draft and the commission is threatening to use their quasijudicial powers to issue a 'non-discrimination notice, which is legally binding. This would be a disaster for the service, far worse than the outcome of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, which found the Met Police 'institutionally racist'.

And that's not his only quasi-judicial headache - an Employment Tribunal just found in favour of a 'whistle-blower' and suggested Will gets his act together on personnel policies too.

On Tuesday morning, Will has a meeting at the Home Office, where officials and the minister are spins, Oo

to give him a hard time over his annual performance targets. The results are actually not too bad, but that won't stop them. And that afternoon he will get an extra dose from the Treasury when he has to discuss his budget. With prison numbers soaring, they have to give him more money - but they always want strings and these days that usually means some sort of commitments about the services contribution to Home Office 'Public Service Agreement' targets and other performance measures.

And they'll want to know about Will's progress in meeting the 'Gershon' efficiency targets (and so will the Office of Government Commerce, or the Gershon Police as they are fondly known, who are coming to visit next week).

On Wednesday, the Commons' home affairs select committee is holding its annual review of the prison service targets - so at least Will will have 'warmed up' the day before. Last year they berated him for having the wrong targets, but it's officially the minister who sets them, not Will.

On Thursday, it's the unions - the prison officers and the civil service unions both have their own ideas about what prison staff should be doing. These inevitably do not quite match the priorities of the service, or any of the other people who seem to think they have the right to tell Will how it should be performing.

Finally it's Friday, but Will isn't thanking any deity for this end-of-the-week day. The prison inspectorate is issuing its annual report - with yet more recommendations on performance priorities. And in between darting between various media studios to defend the service (again), Will's got to sort out the new service delivery agreement' with other criminal justice agencies. Yet more performance measures to be sorted, and if possible meshed with all the others.

And just to round the week off he has two other meetings - one with the lobby groups representing prisoners (the Howard League, Prison Reform Trust, etc) and one with those representing victims (Victim Support, etc) and he knows they are both going to want completely different things from him.

The hypothetical week from hell? Well, maybe, but this scenario is all too familiar to managers across most of the public services. The details change from service to service, but the main external actors are usually - to some degree at least - present.

This is what we call the 'performance regime' for each service - the whole array of outside players who can, quite legitimately, use either formal authority or money or both to tell public services how they ought to be performing.

The range of actors includes central ministries (Treasury, Cabinet Office and Number 10), line ministries, Parliament, judicial and quasi-judicial bodies, audit, inspection and regulatory bodies, professional groups and trade unions, users and their representatives, and partner organisations. They don't all have the same power. …

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