Home > The Monday Musings Column > working in different worlds

working in different worlds

The other week I was chatting to Cathy Hayward, providing a quote or two for an article, and we talked about some aspects of the differences between the public and private sectors. It almost 44 years ago that I left full time education and in that time I have worked in both sectors and with businesses from family firms, through local, national, pan-European  and global outfits. More recently, as a consultant, I have continued that theme, but consultancy tends to lead to lots of smaller projects and so I get to see a wide range in a short space of time and often, as I have this month, been working for public and private sector clients at the same time.

So what are the differences? Well they are there, but the popular concept that one is tight and focused and the other is riddled with wasteful practice is a long way from the reality as the one about entrepreneurial flair versus rule book bound drones. No, the reality is that there are some good things and some bad things to be found and rooted out wherever you go. There are some very good things being done in the public sector and some truly awful things to be found in the private one (and the same goes for comparisons with the third sector too).

One of the problems with the sort of sweeping generalisations that get made about public and private sector behaviours is that the baseline for any comparison is skewed; it is not comparing like for like. The private sector will choose their products, prices and markets and position themselves within that mix with comparative freedom to manoeuvre and change as they see fit. A public sector body is there to supply a fixed service to a fixed market and often at a price that is fixed for them and have to operate under heavily regulated conditions. Yes, some private sector business operates in a regulated environment, but they are not boxed into markets in the same way.

The public sector’s customers can’t generally vote with their wallets and go somewhere else for the service, but nor can the organisation decide to cease the service it is obliged to provide. The customer : supplier relationship is wholly captive and that is a very different dynamic to work with.

In recent times the private sector has come under a lot more scrutiny from the political scene and a rabid media as things like bonuses for top people have caused a furore, but how would they fare if, as their public sector colleagues have to, with politicians constantly keeping one eye, if not both, more on vote grabbing headlines than on making a real difference?

The private sector can look at long term value because shareholders are often content with that, but how would the senior management cope if the board might be voted out every few years in favour of a new crew with a diametrically opposed business philosophy?

I appreciate that, within the constraints of 600 words I am in danger of making my own sweeping generalisations here, but the point that I’m trying to make is that the two sectors work in very different ways and not all of the skills from one will work in the other.

Sure there are opportunities to improve in the public sector, but there are too in the private, so try and keep an open mind. At the moment all businesses have to take a hard look at anything that they can improve on; that is one thing that we all have in common.

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