Glare of social media harsh on public sector but good for it too
No one trusts public servants these days!
Well that's a bit harsh! People still report pretty high levels of trust in their doctors, school teachers and police officers, far more actually than they have for the journalists and politicians who tend to be the professional critics of those who work in the business of helping people.
Nonetheless, it would be wrong to claim that we still enjoy the same level of faith in our public institutions as we did 30 years ago.
As a lifelong public servant, a former chief constable and now the chairman of a Hospital Trust, this disturbs me. Like the vast majority of my colleagues past and present, I have always tried to do my best for the public, and I take it personally when the devotion and hard work of the many is trashed by the poor behaviour of the few. Like them I see at first hand the outstanding care, and service that most NHS and police staff give, and like them I feel it when those efforts are rubbished by politicians and the press.
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But I think I understand why that happens, and I actually think that, painful as it is, such criticism is ultimately healthy.
The past 20 years has seen greater access to information than at anytime in history. We have legislation that guarantees it. We have a much more intrusive media providing instant 24 hours a day news coverage, and everyone is a potential photo journalist, able to post pictures and text onto social media within seconds of an event happening. And the age of deference ended long ago. Mortally wounded in the 1960s, it died a slow painful death during the 70s and 80s and now, a dirty hospital toilet or a policeman's rudeness is no longer tolerated with little more than a shrug of exasperation, it is far more likely to be recorded on a smart phone and uploaded onto YouTube. So in one sense, it's no wonder that lots of people think that the country has gone to the dogs.
The narrative today is relentlessly critical.
The reality is that the world is far better informed about, and more questioning of, those in positions of power.
Public services have suffered painfully as they appear leaden footed and defensive in their feeble attempts to respond. Consequently, what people read about and see, is a story about "failing services".
But actually this is a story of paradox, and the first paradox is this. I know that today's police service is immeasurably better than the one I joined in 1976. New colleagues tell me that exactly the same applies to the Health Service. I have absolutely no doubt that children are better protected today than they have ever been, despite the many well-documented "failures" of the care system. The uncomfortable truth is that three decades ago it was really quite easy to cover up mistakes or wrongdoing and it happened all the time; for all of today's angst about whistle-blowing, in those days the term wasn't even used, and to raise a hand to report malpractice would have been unthinkable; and as for the public, they were expected to be satisfied and grateful for what they were given, and they certainly were not expected to complain about it.
It has been the painful experience of being gradually turned inside out and exposed for all to see that has both knocked public confidence, but also actually improved service. I have felt the heat of that public glare personally and I know that it forces people and organisations to confront their shortcomings and change for the better.
But I guess that lots of you don't believe me. Well, that's OK.
It's my job to convince you, not your job to be convinced. Public servants in the 21st century are just going to have to get used to dealing with that scepticism.
All I ask is that you take advantage of those things that have been introduced over the years to listen and respond. If you have a complaint then make it, the systems may still frustrate, but they are much more responsive than they were; every second chief constable or hospital chief executive is on Twitter, use social media to make your point and ask questions; when we ask for your opinion in a survey then tell us, we will listen and respond, 30 years ago we wouldn't even have thought about asking.
Which all amounts to the second paradox, which is that although we have never been so transparent, we have also never been so harshly criticised for our lack of transparency.
Someone told me the other day that transparency was a really boring topic. Well, tell that to those who suffered at Mid Staffordshire Hospital and Hillsborough.
A lack of transparency compounded those failures, only the willing embrace of greater transparency will cure them.