Saturday, 10 January 2009

Making the civil service more businesslike

This is all the more amusing for having been written in the 1930s!

Officialdom classifies activity according to the capacity for undertaking it formally acquired by means of examinations and a certain period of service. 'Training' and 'length of service' are the only things which the official brings to the 'job'. If the work of a body of officials appears unsatisfactory, there can be only one explanation: the officials have not had the right training, and future appointments must be made differently. It is therefore proposed that a different training should be required of future candidates. If only the officials of the communal undertaking came with a business training, the undertaking would be more business-like. But for the official who cannot enter into the spirit of capitalist industry this means nothing more than certain external manifestations of business technique: prompter replies to inquiries, the adoption of certain technical office appliances, which have not yet been sufficiently introduced into the departments…, the reduction of unnecessary duplication, and other things. In this way 'the business spirit' penetrates into the offices of communal enterprise. And people are greatly surprised when these men trained on these lines also fail, fail even worse than the much-maligned civil servants, who in fact show themselves superior at least in formal schooling.

It is not difficult to expose the fallacies inherent in such notions. The attributes of the business man cannot be divorced from the position of the entrepreneur in the capitalist order. 'Business' is not in itself a quality innate in a person; only the qualities of mind and character essential to a business man can be inborn. Still less is it an accomplishment which can be acquired by study.... A man does not become a business man by passing some years in commercial training or in a commercial institute, nor by a knowledge of book-keeping and the jargon of commerce...

When these obvious truths became clear in the end the experiment was tried of making entrepreneurs, who had worked successfully for many years, the managers of public enterprises. The result was lamentable. They did no better than the others; furthermore they lacked the sense for formal routine which distinguishes the life-long official. The reason was obvious. An entrepreneur deprived of his characteristic role in economic life ceases to be a business man. However much experience and routine he may bring to his new task he will still only be an official in it. It is just as useless to attempt to solve the problem by new methods of remuneration. It is thought that if the managers of public enterprises were better paid, competition for these posts would arise and make it possible to select the best men. Many go even further and believe that the difficulties will be overcome by granting the managers a share in the profits… But the problem is not nearly so much the question of the manager's share in the profit, as of his share in the losses… To make a man materially interested in profits and hardly concerned in losses simply encourages a lack of seriousness…

(Ludwig von Mises, Socialism, pp215-7.)

1 comment:

dreamingspire said...

Surely the difference between the 30s and now is that now they try to define service delivery in detail but then it was local officials who defined delivery, and did it in a locally sensitive way. Not being much of a historian, nevertheless I have become aware that during WWII of course govt did have to run things from the centre, and took a while to get its act together (like transferring successful local officials, even those drafted in locally at first, down to London - personal experience, although at the time I was too young to remember the temporary disappearance of my father).