RealTerms

Public doldrums

"By 11.20pm it's all over and we adjourn to the grim little cell in the basement laughingly called our "hospitality room". Once upon a time this contained some passable canapťs and a selection of drinks. Nowadays there may be a couple of bottles of Uzbekistan's finest Riesling and a plate of Monster Munch."

So Jeremy Paxman, the BBC's witty Newsnight presenter, reflected upon the early years of this excellent current affairs progamme, which celebrates its 25th year. Is he saying Uzbekistan's wine has really come on and the Beeb has a caterer with an eye for new and exciting vintages?

Or else he is lamenting the decline in lifestyles in one of Britain's great public institutions. Is it the same in all public sector employers? Is the good life over (if it ever existed)?

Well, it is, and I have to say, it's a pity. Why? Okay, government organisations cost money, but its staff have to feel inspired, even loved, right? It is not by filleting the life out of their organisations with account-driven misery cuts, saving money on canapes, that government suddenly becomes affordable and wonderful.

Take the OECD in Paris. Its 2,000 strong staff once enjoyed such basic services as a travel agent, a post office, a large supermarket serving fine cuts of beef, three or four restaurants and canteens where staff could meet and exchange ideas, as well as refuel, and more. Essentials to get on with the busy job of running the developed world, or mere trappings of power? Now, most of those services have been cut. Is the OECD producing more, forging ahead or doing better? I asked a friend who has worked there for quite a while. No, he said.

"It's now a more depressed, more forlorn, almost more defeated, organisation than ever it was before. People, I am told, turn up in the morning, close their office doors, produce unreadable and unread documents, and go home again. The smile has gone, so has the hunger and inspiration that once made it a world-leading organisation."

As Herman Abs, once financial advisor to German Chancellor Adenauer, once said, working for profit is like living to breathe. But at least companies have profit as a lure, and probably canapes as well. Public organisations only have their trappings to drive them. Well, luckily, Jeremy Paxman has a sense of humour.

©rjdoyle 2005

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