Corporate efficiency: public service versus private enterprise

Having worked both as a civil servant and for private companies, large and small, I always raise a wry smile when the advocates of private enterprise claim, with a look of religious certainty in their eyes and the ringing voice of the true believer, that private enterprise is by definition much more efficient than public endeavour. In fact, private enterprise can be every bit as wasteful and often far more reckless than public service.

Take a couple of blatant examples of crass incompetence by private enterprise from the past fifteen  years. The directors of a major defence and electronics company Marconi managed in a few short years to reduce the company from one with several billion pounds in cash reserves and a stock-exchange value of some £30 billion to a company with billions of pounds worth of debt and shares which were effectively worthless after the creditor banks took ownership of what remained of the company.

How did Marconi management accomplish this stupendous feat? They  decided that their highly successful core business of defence equipment was just too boring and “not now” for words and sold off most of this highly profitable business. They then ploughed into telecommunications, a business in which they had little experience, which was “utterly now” and “obviously” on the brink of a mobile phones bonanza. There they caught not so much a very bad cold but commercial double pneumonia.

The second example is the assurance company Equitable Life. In the 1980s and early 1990s this firm offered financial products with an attractive guaranteed return. Unsurprisingly, they proved very popular.

Come the time to meet these obligations Equitable found they could not do so. They tried to renege on the guaranteed return promise but, after several years of legal battles, the House of Lords decided against them. At that point they were arguably insolvent. Instead of going into administration, they began a series of actions which made a mockery of that for which they supposedly stood – assurance.

For fear of trading fraudulently or even whilst insolent – any new business might well have been considered fraudulent because of the possibility of a failure to meet existing obligations – they closed their books to new business. Then by stages – the torment for the policy holders was extended – they reduced payouts to those who had not had the guaranteed return and by stages considerably raised the penalty for clients taking their money out of the Equitable. Their customers were left with the ghastly choice of losing a large slice of what was already a reduced pot of money or taking a much lower income.

Most choose the latter course. Equitable said in so many words take what we offer or be fined (or even worse, drive us into liquidation and lose most or even all of what is left). Those unlucky enough to be coming up to retirement during this time were left with pensions and lump sum payments much less than they reasonably anticipated when they  took out the policy and substantially below the level which could be blamed on the general stock market fall. All of this was of course quite legal, but the shareholders who did not have the guaranteed return could have had no inkling of what might happen to their policies when they took them out. The saga is still rumbling on in 2011  as Equitable shareholders who lost out are still trying to get compensation from the taxpayer on the grounds that the government failed to regulate the company.

I do not claim that public service is wondrously efficient and economical. Rather, I say that private business, at least at the larger end, is much the same. In fact, any big organisation displays the same characteristics of bureaucracy, a lack of imagination, organisational inertia and less than optimum manning. Marks and Spencer, until the late 1990s one of the reputedly best run of British firms, suddenly fell prey to just these traits and has only just got back on the rails.

But large organisations also have their advantages. They are capable of providing a wide range of services. They can provide those services over a large area. They have a degree of “slack” which allows emergencies to be dealt with and bottlenecks due to variable demand to be managed when they arise. Such “slack” is very important in industries such as gas and electricity and services such as the railways. The slack in many of the privatised industries has either vanished altogether or been reduced to dangerous levels.

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