The Pinnacle of Civilisation
Meet my friend Chris.
Chris is one of my oldest friends, I have known him since I was 11. We were boy scouts together and have hiked many a mile since then. His energy remains irrepressible, he is truly a force of nature.
Chris is one of the key people in charge of government housing for people in the London Borough of Islington. Like many parts of London, Islington is a borough of extremes, home to some of the richest and some of the poorest London residents.
One in three people in the UK used to live in social housing, most often owned by local government, as recently as the late 1970s. Successive governments, starting of course with Mrs. Thatcher, have cut this back. But even today, many still do. In Islington, the local council has 26,000 houses. Chris oversees a rental income and turnover of £200 million.
I suspect quite a few reading this will be public sector workers themselves or have close friends or relatives who are, in one capacity or another. Frontline public sector workers get the most airtime: the teachers, the nurses, the social workers, doing amazing work, often underpaid and undervalued. But also, behind, are managers, leaders, organisers, planners, who are often much maligned.
As I have got older, so have my friends, and many of them have moved from the frontline to management roles in the public sector. They are heads of social work, heads of schools, managers in the National Health Service.
These people are the first to attract the ire of right-wing politicians and neoliberals worldwide, derided as faceless bureaucrats who dedicate their days to squandering taxes on indulgent and inherently inefficient welfare programs for the feckless and lazy.
By its very nature, managing public services fairly and to a high quality is a complicated business. In a private sector company, whilst there may be multiple objectives, there is always one over-riding one: to make a profit. In the public sector, management is far more complex. There is still a bottom line, and with austerity and constant attacks, the amount of money seems to get cut relentlessly. But beyond this there are a million daily decisions to make, waying up how this money should be spent to protect and support the population in the most effective and efficient ways possible.
Consider a day in Chris’s life. He could have an elderly tenant, probably poor and with other social problems, suddenly unable to pay their rent. He would be working with other parts of the public sector like social workers, mental health workers, and the police to ensure that this person is supported. He has to weigh up the costs of this case in relation to others. Yes the revenue from rent is needed to support the system, but equally the system has a duty of care to this elderly tenant, to ensure they keep their home and are supported.
For me, this planning, this structure, this teamwork, is the pinnacle of civilisation. It is the complex, value-driven machinery that lies behind the famous Gandhi quote that a civilisation should be judged by how it looks after the weakest, not by the achievements of the strongest. Modern welfare states are incredible accomplishments, existing to standardise and institutionalise care, making sure everyone is supported and helped to live the best life they can.
Rich nations, under the logic of the last few decades, rarely celebrate them, and never in full for the achievements they are. They criticized instead for ‘failing’, in perpetual need of ‘reform’, which all to often basically means more involvement of private sector actors.
The global miracle of public services
Of course, it is in rich countries that the welfare state is the largest, but in the Global South too there are, in almost every country, huge public bureaucracies that employ millions of people, working to deliver services to the benefit of millions more. They are all driven by value, not by profit.
Globally, around half a billion people work in the public sector, according to the ILO.
Thailand introduced universal health coverage in 2002 for its 65 million citizens, who had a per capita income similar to that of the US in 1930. The Thai government employs 180,000 nurses and 50,000 doctors. Over 80% of all care in Thailand is delivered by the state.
Ethiopia is a very poor country, with around the same per capita income as Canada in 1840. However, it is the fifth-largest spender on education in the world as a proportion of its budget. It employs more than 400,000 primary school teachers. Between 2005 and 2015, it raised the number of kids going to school by 15 million from 10-25 million – an incredible achievement. Think of the planning, and all the organisation that involves? When a rich country like the UK had that level of income it was still sending 10-year-olds down coalmines and into factories.
Public sector workers are also much more likely to be women than private sector workers. Around half of public sector workers globally are women, compared to one third of the private sector; in the education and health sectors this proportion rises to 64% and 70% respectively.
It is not just health and education though. Other enormous public sector organisations exist in nations all over the world. The US Postal Service, enshrined as it is in the constitution, reaches every house in the nation. It delivers 130 million pieces of mail daily via a workforce of over half a million.
Indian railways has 1.4 million employees, making it the world’s tenth largest employer. It runs 13,000 trains and carries 23 million passengers every day, the equivalent of the population of Australia. The logistics, the complexity of this, is mind-boggling – all done with the primary aim of delivering a service, not a profit for shareholders.
Organisations designed around purpose in the first place.
With the move away from neoliberalism, and the return of industrial policy, I think it is vital that we look at different ways to organise and deliver a good life for everyone in the world whilst decarbonising our economy fast. Instead of just assuming that the only alternative to neoliberalism is to give huge public subsidies to ‘derisk’ private actors to entice them to invest in strategic areas. We should also be looking much more seriously at the public option in every part of the economy. How about public banks; public internet; public transport; public energy; public research and development; public food; public medicines?
This is not some theoretical alternative or unproven suggestion. In fact, in every nation already has millions of people employed gainfully and productively in activities that are not driven by profit. Millions of experienced, committed, talented managers and planners, working in often hugely constrained financial circumstances, delivering their best for society.
Instead of endless discussions about how to get the private sector to be more ‘purpose driven’ rather than profit driven (which I think are a bit like wondering how we make our pet lion go vegan), we should be looking instead at the human organizations, all around us, that are purpose driven already. Surely that would be the rational, sensible place to start?
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