From education to employment

Private sector vs the public sector – do they really differ?

In the UK there has always been the unshakable perception that the public and private sectors are very distinct from each other, that each requires a different mindset and approach, and cannot be compared. In this article I would like to challenge this perception by highlighting my own experiences working as a trainer and consultant in both sectors.

It’s true that if you were to focus purely on the ‘functions’ that each sector performs – and not on the fact that both involve money, people and time – the general understanding, and therefore, the answer to the question would be a resounding ‘yes’ – they are totally different!

That is unless you talk to somebody who has worked in both and, most importantly, that the person understands that, once you do factor in the elements of money (budget or turnover) and people (internal or external) and finally time, you have elements that are measurable! Thus from that perspective they don’t differ at all, and ‘should’ therefore be managed in exactly the same way. You would think!

As a consultant and trainer over the last 15 years or so I have been privileged enough to have worked from a development perspective in each of the two big Ps.

However, in my early days when trying to bring skills I had learnt and developed in the private sector into the public sector, I was understandably challenged, sometimes quite aggressively, because of my ‘perceived’ lack of experience in the non-profit arena. It was true that, at that point in my career, I had solely worked in the business environment and was known as a trainer specialising in sales and marketing and leadership (they only had to look at my website, it was no secret)!

They would challenge me with statements like: ‘what possible skills could you bring? It’s poles apart. We don’t have the same challenges. You cannot compare the two. We are not for profit. We have a different style of leadership. We don’t have shareholders. We don’t have paying customers’, etc.

Eventually (more slowly than surely) I persuaded some public sector-decision makers to let me work with their employees. I admit it took some quick adapting from my part. Not because it was, or is different, but because the terminology I needed to use had to reflect the different ways in which we measure money, people and time.

Which brings me to my point: any organisation, whether it is trying to make a profit, or if it is protecting the money it receives from the public coffers, has to measure the ways in which it does it.

Any accountant will tell you, it’s simply a case of taking money in or paying money out – it’s still money! You are either looking to make a profit or spend within a budget, either way money has to be protected, and therefore it has to be managed. The age-old adage of ‘if you can’t measure, you can’t manage’ is true in whatever organisation you work in.

Generally the private sector understands this, although, having said that, I am still surprised by how many businesses still fail in the 21st century to actually measure their success (or failure), but that is a separate discussion.

The response by public sector managers that ‘it’s different’ is more an emotive or defensive rather than a realistic one, and it is generally driven by different mindsets, agendas or simply by the fact that they have never thought about it in that way before.

These vary from:

  • ‘We don’t need to be measured, for what exactly?’
  • ‘I don’t want to be exposed’ – more a personal thought process than ever actually voiced, but you can see it written all over their faces.
  • ‘I am comfortable doing what I am doing; we have always done it this way and the system works’ – how efficiently run and how cost effective ‘the system’ is, is generally not a consideration.
  • ‘Our clients are not paying customers; so we have to manage them, not service them’ – which of course is completely untrue because their clients are paying customers. They are the British taxpayers, who are technically shareholders of the public sector.
  • ‘People don’t like to be measured. It’s de-motivational’ – this response is normally by people who are probably (dare I say) underperforming. The reality is that people are more motivated when they know exactly what is expected of them, and they can feel that they are contributing to the overall success of the organisation, and therefore have a sense of belonging and achievement.

Of course, it’s fair to say that I get some of these responses above from people in the private sector as well, not surprisingly in organisations that have no measures in place.

It’s only when you have the opportunity to work with both sectors at the same time, and within the same room, that you have the opportunity to demonstrate and to persuade this argument effectively – that there is no difference.

I initially had the perfect opportunity to do this around seven years ago, but not in the UK.

I started working for a number of Russian speaking conference organisations that bring delegates to Europe. Each group comprises a mixed collection of HR directors, financial directors, CEOs and business owners from both the state (public) and private sectors. The delegates come from Russia and Ukraine (yes they did and still do get on fine), Kazakhstan, Moldova, Azerbaijan and various other countries that I sometimes struggle to pronounce.

Now, and I say this in a positive way, they are probably the most challenging groups I have ever worked with. Not, just because of the varying cultures, language barriers (mainly from my perspective) and mindsets (some of the largest organisations from the former Soviet Union are still battling to get past the communist mentality that still persists). No, the key challenges I faced initially were the fact that I had both profit and non-profit leaders in the room, from government bodies and state run organisations to the oil and gas industry, transport, road building, education, banking, retail and whatever other type of industry you could possible think of, all chucked together for three or four days. The subjects I cover (I am still delivering these programmes today) vary from creative strategic planning, motivation, non-financial rewards, implementing key performance indicators through to leadership skills and team dynamics. Can you start to see the challenges?

I know that if there are any trainers reading this they will all be thinking ‘rather you than me mate!’ Because as trainers they will know that each of the delegates will initially see all of these subjects from a completely different perspective. And if I were just to plough on and deliver my content, without pre-empting the expected challenges, I would have an empty room in roughly 30 minutes.

To this end I have had to ‘fine-tune’ my delivery, debating and facilitating skills since working with these organisations, but most importantly I have to prove and convince them right at the front end of each conference that they are the same. They all offer a service and whatever that service is giving, or taking, it has a deliverable and a measurable attached to it.

Once they understand these critical points, the next step is to get them to recognise that, if that is the case, then each person in an organisation (public or private) must contribute to that in a measured way.

What they and their people do and how they do it will either effectively achieve the goals and objectives or not. Where the ‘not’ is generally because people, for the reasons I gave earlier, become blinded to the facts.

So until I get buy in and consensus in all the above, I cannot even think about starting discussing the content of the conference. Oh, and I forgot to mention the other challenge I have to contend with. I have to deliver all this through an interpreter! If it weren’t for the current disputes between Russia and the UK I would probably be up for a gong!

So to summarise, whether you are running a business, a public sector department or a government (which I deal with in my next article: ‘How should our country be run?), unless you can measure its input and its output successfully and if possible on a day-to-day basis, you cannot run it effectively.

Philip Peters is managing director of Leading National Training, which works successfully across both the private and public sectors

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