Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tidings Of Discomfort And Misery

Shouldn't Father Christmas look chirpier than this? And where's his hat?

Three very familiar items from this morning's depressing papers:

  1. Violence in schools - "Police are being called out to deal with 40 violent incidents in schools every day, prompting fresh fears over a breakdown in classroom discipline... the gang culture witnessed on many inner-city streets is spilling over into schools, with more young people bringing knives into lessons... a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that one in 10 state school teachers has been injured by a violent pupil".
  2. Plague Hospitals - "Sir Richard Branson, who was recently appointed vice-president of the Patients Association, called for all hospital staff to be screened for the superbug MRSA and receive immediate treatment if infected... "There have been some improvements, but the facts speak for themselves - and the facts are still horrific. It feels like they have tinkered rather than really got to the heart of the problem. The hospitals are there to cure people. They are not there to kill people... In the airline industry if we had that kind of track record we would have been grounded years ago".
  3. Non-Policing - "Police are failing to investigate almost four in every ten crimes... Victims' groups have condemned this practice of 'screening out' offences - but it is alarmingly widespread. The Met, the country's largest force, decided that 51 per cent of crimes were not worth full investigations as there was little chance of catching the culprit. It said that in the 2007/8 financial year it screened out a total of 437,888 offences. These included 26,709 offences of violence, 338 sex attacks, 5,562 robberies and more than 60,000 burglaries. For burglary, the Met only investigate one in three cases reported to them. In Bedfordshire, which last year screened out 42 per cent of crimes, one in three burglaries doesn't get a full investigation."

Three dire failings right at the heart of our public services. And as regular readers will be well aware, these are failings that have been around ever since we started BOM nearly four years ago. Cost? Taken together, these three underperforming services - schools, health and police - now cost us north of £180bn pa, or £7 grand per household.

The really frustrating thing is that we know what needs to be done. Teachers need to be put back in charge of classroom discipline. Nurses need to be put back in charge of hospital hygiene. And policemen need to be put back in charge of policing. Plus of course, schools, hospitals, and police all need to be made directly accountable to their customers, not to the commissars.

The fundamental reason that Sir Dick's airline works so much better than the NHS (or Aeroflot) is because unless he delivers what the customer wants, he goes bust. Whereas our state schools, state hospitals, and state police don't. Even when their customers get so pissed off they take their biz elsewhere, they still have to pay to maintain the dysfunctional state service.

As it happens, I've just sampled the horror that is Sainsburys at Christmas. Now, there's a company that very nearly incinerated itself a few years back by getting too top-down, and losing track of customer service in the stores - our large store hit rock bottom when it literally ran out of potatoes one Xmas Eve.

But now - while by no means perfect - its stock control has definitely improved, and most impressively, you can sense a change of attitude among the staff. Today, the manager came on the tannoy and told us he hoped we were having a good experience in his store - if not, he had stationed himself at the door and he wanted to hear about it so he could put it right.

I've never heard that before, and I've never heard a store manager openly thank his staff and urge them on to greater efforts. It was an impressive testimony to the power of choice and competition*.

The Commissars mouth platitudes about customer choice, but when it comes to action, they never relinquish power. All they can ever think of is to issue more top-down directives to deal with the latest crisis headlines (eg MRSA). Even though we all know by now that top-down direction destroys initiative and customer focus at the sharp end, where it can actually make a real difference.

*Footnote -please don't tell me all Sainsburys managers have been ordered to make these human face store announcements. Please don't tell me I've been scammed by some evil PR stunt. It is Christmas after all. May we wish you all a happy one.


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