Book review: Public Service on the Brink

Public Service on the Brink Edited by Jenny Manson

Published by Imprint Academic

Public Service on the Brink, edited by Jenny Manson, provides a refreshingly frank, insightful and experiential account in addressing the denigration, unsuccessful reorganisation and general undermining of the public service ethos over the past thirty years or so. As such, the book’s perspective is less concerned with questions about what it is public services do and how they do this, and is instead more concerned about questions on the why of public service as a public good in its own right.

At the outset, Manson takes care to avoid the accusation that the timeliness of this book arrives in an era of knee-jerk reaction to the policy climate of financial austerity by a Conservative-Liberal coalition. In qualifying this, Manson portends that much about the direction and flavour of the cuts proposed over the period 2010-2014 further exposes the difficulty of defending the idea of public service being for the public. Drawing from a range of contributors with experience from across the fields of academia, public services, journalism and the union movement, the questions this book addresses are why, how and when did public service fall into disrepute and what is the reason for the current sustained attack?

The book is thematically organised around three key strands which guide the narratives, reflections and explanations the contributors provide: a description of the continuous change; the ‘what it feels like’ to be a public servant in these times; and, an explanation of the phenomena in their field.

In the first part, the civil service is discussed around the themes of saving public services and the need for an elite public service. The second part of the book draws insights from the academic debate on public service. A key purpose of this chapter is to drill deeper into addressing some of the philosophical underpinnings of why a public sector exists and why ‘publicness’ matters and should be defended.

One contribution sets out to examine the impact of the ‘creed’ of New Public Management (NPM) or ‘Change Management’ on public service while another concentrates on the public-private partnership in alluding to the privatisation of governance structures in public service. In situating the merits of the private sector in public provision, the question of who the ‘system’ works for is posited around four areas which have characterised this development: the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), the privatisation of British Rail, Ministry of Defence procurement and the growing reliance on private consultants the ‘revolving door’ phenomenon.

In the final part, public service is examined from the perspective of places, needs and multi-deprivation. Key insights are provided from the experience of the author working in communities that are heavily dependent on public services in both a spatial and social context. Specific programmes such the New Deal for Communities are referred to and key issues of why working in the public sector can make it so difficult to secure long term and lasting improvements and conversely, why the public sector can also transform the lives of people in ‘dysfunctional’ places.

In identifying a readership for Public Service on the Brink, this book would potentially be of interest to undergraduate students in politics, economics, social and public policy as well as those studying business and management within a public sector context. It is also a useful addition to the vast literature in the field of social policy generally and should be read as a supplementary guide to unpicking the complexity of public service as a public good within the context of different service arenas.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone concerned with contemporary events affecting public service and services. The book is clearly written and engaging and it signposts the reader to further literature where relevant. While it is detailed in places, it also provides a welcome overview and introduction to the crisis of public service across different sectors. Finally, it is thought-provoking in putting forth some of the complex arguments and explanations for the emergence of the many ideas, approaches, perspectives and contradictions that public service as a public good has undergone over the past thirty years.


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