Last Updated May 4, 2010 10:07 AM EDT
Whether politicians are proposing 'efficiency savings' in public services, regulating the banks or entitling patients to see a cancer specialist in a fortnight, what they are actually talking about (and competing on) is their competence at running things â€"- in plain English, 'managing better'.
The irony is that none of the main parties has a clue what 'managing better' means.
The discussion is stuck in a 1980s timewarp. The vision of management inherited without question by all the parties derives from a time before the collapse of communism when the object of Western economic effort was as much display as efficiency. It was big, wasteful and flashy -â€" like the cars of the times, it was management with fins.
Times have changed â€"- but management hasn't.
In a world that is ever more tightly interconnected both financially and ecologically, we can no longer afford the resource inefficiencies of the past or the casual externalising of the costs of poor management (as in the banks) on to society as a whole.
Nor can we afford the daily frittering away of human talent. Surveys show that just 20 per cent of employees are engaged with their work, a shameful figure that is largely the result of command-and-control work practices that organisations can't shake off â€"- partly because they aren't even aware of them.
In a stimulating new book on 'Reinventing Management', author Julian Birkinshaw notes the 'harsh reality-- that that today's large business organisations are-- miserable places to spend our working lives. Fear and distrust are endemic. Aggressive and unpleasant behavour is condoned. Creativity and passion are suppressed.' Management, he concludes, has failed.
And the British politicians' contribution? More of the same. The only 'improvement' they can envisage is industrialising public services and delivering them through giant shared-service and back-office factories like HMRC and DWP.
Yet these flagships of public-sector reform are an unmitigated disaster. If Charlie Chaplin were around today, he would remake his assembly-line satire 'Modern Times' at HMRC, which has been reduced to such a shambles by the 'Pacemaker' ('pissmaker' to the staff) transformation programme that it only managed to answer 50 per cent of calls last year, and stress levels are so high that group of academics queried whether the organisation was failing in its duty of care to employees.
It's not just the organisations themselves that are suffer from this mismanagement. The knock-on costs of the inefficiencies spread far and wide.
Benefits and council tax offices, advice bureaux, housing associations and the whole courts system are clogged up with citizens struggling to cope with the consequences of the failure of HMRC (and its partner in incompetence, DWP) to do its job properly. These are reverse efficiency savings.
Yet all the parties are promising to spread the same disastrous practices to the rest of the public sector. Sir Peter Gershon has advised the Conservatives to outsource the entire public-sector back office within 18 months.
This is a nightmarish vision which ignores the reason that capitalism works: it allows the small-scale local trial, error and adaptation â€"- innovation -â€" that central planning doesn't. Reconnecting the individual to the organisation, the citizen to the community and the organisation to society is a legitimate -â€" and urgent â€"- political aspiration.
But it can't be done using the same outdated, unfit for purpose methods that got us into the mess in the first place, and it won't be done until politicians recognise the central issue for what it is: it's management, stupid.