I was recently leading a collaborative project that could make its public-sector partners substantial savings and (god forbid) profit!
A businessman asked me to lunch, putatively to discuss the project, but really to try and poach me to help him sell a similar project into my government networks.
He used a list of ‘fact-statements’ to make his case. Statements that comprehensively summed-up the assumptions that underpin a great deal of public sector activity:
“You’d be better bringing your expertise to me because the Public Sector:
a. can’t find the money
b. isn’t entrepreneurial enough, and;
c. won’t spend the money well even if it makes it”
My answer made the third person in the meeting look uncomfortable (though he later told me he was cheering inside):
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if:
a. I hadn’t found the money
b. we hadn’t created the project in-the-first place, and;
c. I’d rather the public got the money than that you did”
After this the meeting became very polite and we congratulated each other on the great work we were doing and quickly ended the meeting.
What is sad about the meeting is that the attitude on display it is:
1. profoundly destructive and precludes ANY chance of building public institutions that actually protects or forward the public good
2. wrong and;
3. most people in the public sector believe it too!
How can you do good work in for the common good when you fundamentally believe someone else would do a better job?
You can’t, and you shouldn’t try!
The drivers and motivations in the private sector are no less valid than those of the public sector but they are simpler, and they are different.
Our public institutions may be flawed and struggling to adapt to complex, cross-sectoral challenges but so are our private institutions and they are our starting-point.
It IS hard work, stressful, frustrating, confusing and sometimes dismaying, but, challenges to the common-good can only be effectively addressed by institutions founded in the common good.
For all their power, commercial success and attempts at being purpose-driven, good corporate citizens, the reality is that businesses are not grounded in the common good, and it is inappropriate and damaging to pretend (or hope) they are.
The public sector, for all its flaws and challenges it the first and last line-of-defence for the public interest.
Own it and get to work!
As the highly respected professor Wallace S. Sayre of Columbia University put it “business and government administration are alike in all unimportant respects.”