Monday, June 20, 2005

Sharp-dressed men

Interesting piece by Nick Cohen on the dastardly deeds of management consultants, prompted by a new book by David Craig. I was particularly interested to read this:
"Craig is fascinating on why the public has lost so much money. Civil servants are used to dealing with each other and generally assume that people they meet have the country's best interests at heart. They aren't prepared for negotiations with consultants whose guiding principle is often how to hit the client for as much money as possible. They don't understand a world where the acronym Afab - 'anything for a buck' - is thrown around with sniggering nonchalance. Even those who have learned the score after hard-won experience can't use their knowledge because the line from Downing Street is that they're hopeless while the consultants are absolutely fabulous".
A similar thought occurred to me on seeing PFI in practice: it's not just that PFI is an expensive way of borrowing money, or that it actually creates more bureaucracy (I would argue), it's that the public bad - private good mantra stops those dealing with contractors from asking fundamental questions - simply because in many cases the bureaucrats are unaccustomed to asking them.

The examples I was thinking of, however, have rather more to do with cheapness, rather than excessive expense: on acquiring the various services to furnish these wonderful PFI school buildings that are all over Glasgow, it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to ask why a given contractor is able to do the removals/re-furbish the interior of the buildings/install the telephone and computer network so cheaply.

It's too bad: in the case of the removals, for example, the honest answer would have been, "Because we're a bunch of cowboys, mate - why d'ya think?" Not just things being send to the wrong place or damaged in transit. When we were moving to this building, the theft of computer equipment was something to behold. My head of department unpacked his computer and tried to set it up. It wasn't working and on closer inspection, the reason became plain: everything, the hard disc, the processor, inside that make it work, were completely gone. I think every department had a similar experience.

Funny because despite the enthusiasm for private involvement in public services, one of the slogans of the monetarist schools seems to never have been learned: I think it was Milton Friedman who said that there were no free lunches?

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