THERE are many people who work diligently in the public sector who will read with rising anger our story today about bonuses in the NHS and elsewhere.
There is a poor fit between the bonus culture common in the private sector and what is acceptable when distributing money from the public purse.
Bonuses in the corporate world are frequently linked to profits, so they pay for themselves. There is a clear and demonstrable link.
That is rarely the case in a public sector where the focus is on service delivery, not maximising shareholder value.
Of course, there is a credible argument to be made about the usefulness of incentives in getting the best out of people.
Unfortunately for the top managers who tend to make this argument, it is undermined by the inconvenient fact that the bonus culture is largely confined to those at the top of the organisations under scrutiny.
If a bonus culture was indeed the answer to NHS efficiency, for example, then why aren’t all health service staff eligible for a bonus?
The problem with a bonus culture is that it can very quickly cease to be about a genuine reward for genuine work over and above what is already required in the course of a person’s job.
All too often the bonus becomes, by convention, a structural part of the pay a person expects for the routine carrying out of their work. It stops being about excellence, and instead becomes an entitlement; expected as the norm.
In some cases it becomes a surreptitious way of boosting the basic remuneration for a particular managerial role, often done with the good intention of attracting a high quality of applicant, but ultimately unfair to others in that organisation’s pay structure.
The opposition at Holyrood quite rightly want to know how, at a time when accident and emergency provision is in crisis in many parts of the country, the payment of such sums of money to NHS administrators can be deemed appropriate.
The efficacy of a bonus culture in the NHS is questionable at best, but so too is a private sector approach within quangos. They may be at arm’s remove from the government, but the money they spend still comes from the taxpayer, and restraint is needed in how that money is spent.
Given the curious position in which universities find themselves, and given that they raise much of their funding themselves and are not wholly reliant on the public purse, there is perhaps an exception to be made in their case.
But in the public sector, the wage should be set according to the level of experience and application the job entails. That should be good enough. If not, either the wage is set at the wrong rate or the person is not right for the job. The Scottish Government has already said it wants to end bonuses. Now it must.
Accelerating towards the future
THE era of technological change we have seen in the late 20th and early 21st century has been one of the most extraordinary moments in human progress, on par in its importance to the invention of the printing press or the creation of antibiotics.
But it now seems clear that this was not a simple step-change in human possibility, leading to a new plateau. The pace of innovation is, if anything, accelerating.
Take the claim by Scottish researchers that they have made progress in their bid for the capability of creating human organs by means of a 3D printer. This is a perfect example of a relatively simple technology being transformed, through imagination and bravura extrapolation, into something potentially life-changing and life-saving.
This application is still in its infancy, but the obstacles to its full development are largely technical, and therefore capable of being overcome.
Another example is the advent of driverless cars.
This will be the biggest development in car travel for over a century. Incremental changes in speed, comfort and efficiency will be superseded by a revolution that completely changes our relationship with the car.
Cautionary voices seeking regulations that will allow a driver to take control of the car in the event of a malfunction are just the 21st century equivalent of the law that required a man to walk in front of the earliest automobiles waving a red flag. Experts are already envisioning a time when children will be able to travel in driverless cars alone.
These are extraordinary times. We truly live in an age of possibility and it seems the future is not far away.