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Public or private management of public services? It's not the method, it's the purpose

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Marta Méndez Juez. Lecturer at the University of Burgos

We are living a real paralysis of thought and values, fuelled by the implicit acceptance that social and economic issues are two areas of action to be carried out separately. This means that the real concern and the primary responsibility of government is to give priority to the international commitments of adjustment and respect for financial and budgetary rules, rather than give particular attention to the needs of society and the way to earn the trust, respect and support of citizens whom they are serving.

As a result of this synergy, the perception that private management of services always works better than public management has permeated the public. And on that basis, numerous privatisation and outsourcing of public services in recent years have been justified. However, practice shows that it is not possible to develop a truly democratic regeneration in our country without putting a stop to these privatisation abuses and extolling, in turn, the role of the public when it generates more welfare, less corruption and more efficiency.

Since late 2012, the Central Government has launched an ambitious reform project to get over the economic crisis of the last decades, correct imbalances that hinder growth and create the foundations on which a new cycle of economic prosperity and employment can be built. The criterion of efficiency is at the head of the reform, understood as "the concept that allows us to measure how you use the Public Sector resources or allocate budget to meet the provision of services to society," or as " obtaining maximum production from a given amount of resources or, conversely, minimize the resources consumed for a given amount of production".

In a globalised world like ours, where State, Market and Society constantly interact, it is basic and fundamental to carry out a work of methodological preparation of the concepts that the Administrative Law or any other discipline internalise and acquire from other branches of knowledge. Simplicity, rationality, speed, loyalty, cooperation, fairness or the very same criteria of efficiency are the same terms that must be defined and used consistently according to its scope. In this way, we avoid causing that its conceptual distortion leads to malpractice in institutions and feelings of frustration in fulfilling the objectives planned in advance.

Efficiency cannot be an end in itself

Thus, efficiency is a concept pulled out from economics but that can be explained in other areas of social sciences. But understanding efficiency in its social aspect is to distinguish it from its purely economic content and link it to monitoring instruments, valid in terms of administrative control. Thus, efficiency cannot be an end in itself for public organisations, but only a means to achieve other higher or priority objectives. If we are not able to monitor the operation and scope of the Public Sector and particularly our government more strictly, it is impossible to implement the criterion of efficiency in the institutional system. Without evaluation and without control there is no chance at all for any administrative reform to succeed.

When we speak of New Public Management, reform and administrative modernization, it is inevitable to introduce the term efficiency, because it enables the inputs and outputs in institutions to be optimized. However, the work of the legislature, the political scientist, the public manager, is to take on a meaning which is accurate, specific and valid for use in the Public Sector. Thus, efficiency as such does not have to mean loss of quality of services provided or departure from the principle of universality. Efficiency as applied to Public Administrations must not be synonymous with economic efficiency and hence profitability.

Based on the above and from the institutional point of view, efficiency appears inexorably linked to the principle of effectiveness, because in a social state, it is necessary to consider the limited resources it has at its disposal to meet the demands of citizens, which conversely, are becoming greater and more complex. A proper allocation of resources cannot be achieved without the distribution of them is just within a welfare state, that is to say, there is no Effectiveness without efficiency, both in turn, cannot occur without equity in our political system. Therefore, concerns about the effectiveness and efficiency of public services should not be considered irrelevant, but this concern should not be as substantial as to cloud the basic concept, because "in the social state, both social and economic merge into one indivisible magma (...) Because finally to be a social state, it has become to become a an modally economic state."

But, what is the perception of citizens towards the provision of public services? First, we must emphasize the fact that the functioning of public services is one of the important issues in the daily debate and many people agree on the need to improve its performance, particularly the administration of justice and aid to dependent people. Second, around 65% of citizens surveyed consider that, taking into account existing public social services, society benefits little or not at all from what they pay to the government in taxes and benefits contributions. And finally, a large proportion of everyone wants public services and social benefits improved, even if we have to pay more taxes and contributions for that purpose. These same citizens think that the solution to improve the quality of public service is not to outsource or privatise.

Thus, a welfare state is required to increasingly provide public goods and services and, moreover, do it the best way possible. We should be aware of the resources that the public sector has at its disposal to meet its obligations to society, inevitably, depends the relationship between these resources and the desired results, which is to say, an economic analysis is required. But above all, it requires taking into account that public services do not seek, in themselves, profitability or productivity, in the social purpose to be fulfilled. Hence we ask to what extent their management (whether public or private), may condition its effectiveness.

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