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Dedicated public servants adopt best of private sector practices

Frank Pignatelli chief executive of learndirect scotland, who retired this week, reflects on his 40 years in the public and private sectors

Fifteen years ago, as regional chairman of the Royal Institute of Public Administration (RIPA) in Scotland, and three years after I had become director of education in Strathclyde, I was one of a number of guests invited to hear the then Shadow Chancellor, John Smith, give the annual RIPA lecture in London on the subject of public service.

It was a passionate and animated address, in which he gave his enthusiastic and unequivocal support to public servants. "The integrity of public sector employees is a pearl without price," was his conclusion.

My dilemma, and that of many of my senior colleagues in the public sector, was that, judged against the apparent efficiency and effectiveness of the private sector, the public sector seemed slow, bureaucratic and profligate.

It was clear that we had to find a way of ensuring that the services for which we were responsible were more effective, more efficient and more responsive to the needs of our key clients, while preserving the best of public sector values and avoiding the worst excesses of market-driven approaches.

This task was straightforward in Strathclyde where senior politicians, frustrated by what they saw as bureaucratic and obstructive approaches from the education directorate, had engaged external consultants from the Institute of Local Government Studies in Birmingham whose damning report confirmed their fears and whose recommendations shaped my stewardship as the new director of education.

While the impact of the ambitious programme for change in Strathclyde was not fully realised, due to the reorganisation of local government, there seems to be a consensus that we did manage to avoid the worst excesses of the market and maintain strong public sector values, as we took steps to modernise the education service.

Five years after Smith's lecture, I had the opportunity to assess the validity of his arguments when I left the public sector after 26 years to join the private sector, following the abolition of Strathclyde Region.

I found the management approaches refreshing and exciting. Change took place quickly and effectively; new ideas were embraced and developed enthusiastically; the focus on core business ensured effective service delivery; and the obsessive attention given to measuring outputs guaranteed achievement of key performance indicators and progress against targets.

What I had not anticipated was the difficulty I would experience in adjusting to the value system and norms of the private sector, where the prime motive is personal profit.

In November 1999, I was appointed as the first chief executive of learndirect scotland, a bold attempt at experimenting with new ways of delivering public services. Its significant, measurable successes can be attributed to the adoption of the best of private sector practices by a team of able and dedicated staff whose aim is not personal profit but an uncompromising commitment to helping people achieve their potential - the values and norms to which John Smith referred in his RIPA lecture.

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