Book review — The Public Sector: Managing the Unmanageable, by Alexander Stephenson.

Reviewed by Amaan Ali

The public sector concerns us all at this very delicate time in British politics. The NHS is poised to be the major election issue in May. Moreover, a still sluggish economy is bringing yet more critics to call public expenditure to account. Councils are all poised to receive a significant slash in the next couple of years. The public purse is under inspection in the differing frames of various news media.

Part of book cover.
The Public Sector: Managing the Unmanageable crams 80 different conversations with public service leaders into under 200 pages.

Fitting then that The Public Sector: Managing the Unmanageable should cram the conclusions of over 80 different conversations with public service leaders into under 200 pages for you for £20 — and you might even claim it on expenses! How bizarre that it has not yet been referenced in speeches by party leaders, just when you thought that the NHS had been “weaponized”.

The author, Fitzrovian Alexander Stephenson, makes no bones about the fact that his public sector expertise originated from starting a consultancy outfit in his mid-20s, and running with New Labour in the heyday before the budget bite. There’s even a foreword by alleged Sith Lord Mandelson.

A clear beneficiary of Blair’s notions of private-public partnership, Stephenson has constructed a highly readable how-to book for mid-managers in the council to high Whitehall. I found the rich variety of characters interesting enough to keep reading about management despite not being a manager. Each chapter has explanatory and citation footnotes, as well as a checklist of probing questions urging self-reflection to any manager’s management style. General lessons are made clear; on the subject of targets, politics, innovation and decision-making.

The admittedly tricky subject of the public sector is broached with pragmatism, rather than ideology: “Many public sector services — rightly or wrongly — are monopolies… Having a bad public sector manager presents a greater risk than having a bad private sector manager”

The author seems to have written the book out of a deep-felt respect for the public sector. His conviction for the importance of a strong public sector seems to have affected him enough to write the book in a way that even the most corporate among us might hazard a thought to a pay cut in the name of public service. At the same time, he is mindful of the core private sector tenet — efficiency; probably explaining the brevity of the book.

The Public Sector: Managing the Unmanageable, by Alexander Stephenson. Published by Kogan Page, 2013.

Follow Amaan Ali on Twitter @Aali0