IT'S not been a bad couple of years for John Lewis.
Not publicity-wise, anyway. As the MPs' expenses scandal dragged into the weeks and then months, we were reminded every day of "the John Lewis list" – that mythical checklist against which all judgments of reasonableness are made. And now, in the past week, we are told that the Government is looking to encourage public sector workers to form into co-operatives in order to run our services more efficiently. Or, in the words of the soundbite media, to adopt "the John Lewis model".
Essentially, the idea is that public sector workers who think they can run their particular department or production line better can band together and take responsibility for their own working practices and processes. Prisons, Sure Start children's centres, hospitals – all could find themselves open to mutualisation. The government has even set aside 10m in order to help fledgling mutuals reach "investment readiness". In fact, almost the only aspect of the public sector ruled out, probably quite understandably, is defence.
The Government's own press release states that "when employees have a stake in their organisation, absenteeism plummets and productivity soars by as much as 19 per cent". All well and good, you might say. But recent research also shows that public sector workers are 30 per cent less efficient than their private sector counterparts, so they've got quite a long way to go.
And this is where the crux of the problem lies. This "John Lewis" plan might save a little bit of money, and might make things a little bit more efficient, but it won't provide the drivers that the private sector does. It, instead, merely represents a tinkering with an inherently flawed method of providing goods and services.
The reason your bank, on the whole, tends to be helpful, or the local supermarket offers you bonus points, is because it is competing for your custom. If you don't like the service you've received then it's perfectly easy for you to take your custom elsewhere. The businesses that perform well will grow and thrive, those that perform badly will go bust. That's the market; that's what drives efficiency.
Try ringing the Inland Revenue to talk about your National Insurance contributions on an evening, or on a Saturday morning; you better have a cushion handy, because you're going to be sitting there until 9am on Monday. If you can't opt out, then what incentives does a business have to make your dealings with them more pleasant, or cheaper?
A personal anecdote illustrates this point: many years ago, as a student, I found myself one summer working in the commercial waste department of a local council. It was as glamorous as it sounds.
On my first morning the phone rang; a female restaurateur angry that her bins hadn't been emptied for the third week in a row. Putting her on hold, I asked one of my new colleagues what I should tell her.
"Tell her to move", came back the helpful reply. Well, the family-friendly version of it, anyway.
I can't remember what I did tell her; a lame apology and an offer that we would "look into it", probably. But what could she do? She could try complaining to another council department, I suppose, but they were unlikely to be any more efficient. No, the only one that I could see to be working reasonably hard was the Environmental Health and Food Safety Department. They were threatening to close her restaurant down – something to do with overflowing bins, and consequent rats, apparently.
What's needed is a radical restructure in public services, not a mere tweak – and that involves embracing privatisation. Only when we are treated as customers, when businesses must compete for our attention and our money and where, crucially, we can take our custom elsewhere will we see efficiency and value for money. It is entirely probable that, for some businesses, the co-operative model is the one that will work best for them; but only when competing in the market place will that be put to the test.
Politicians don't know best how to spend your money, you do. Rather than spending your tax money giving public sector workers advice on how to become more 'investment ready', the Government should be turning services over to the private sector where your decisions on what to do with your own cash will determine whether these businesses succeed or fail. It's a question of choice and of liberty. It's also the case that a smaller public sector would lead to lower taxes and, consequently, more of your wages remaining in your pocket. So, better services, more personal choice and more money.
In technical terms, I think that's what's known as a "no-brainer".
Nick Hayns is communications officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs.