Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Lord Adonis' New Employees

By taking over National Express's East Coast rail franchise, the Department for Transport is adding another 3,000 or so to the state's head-count. As well as reigniting the 'public versus private' debate, it also raises interesting questions about employee engagement. The idea of serving the public can be highly motivating in areas such as health or education: why not on the railways?

When the same thing happened to Connex in 2003, the resulting state-owned firm, South East Trains, was often cited as one of the best-performing train operators (particularly by anti- privatisation campaigners). As usual, it isn't easy to identify how much was due to employee motivation and how much to other factors - in this case, anything from new trains to leafs on the line.

But the National Passenger Survey does give some clues. One question in particular - overall satisfaction with the helpfulness and attitude of staff on trains - may reveal how motivated staff feel. Between Spring 2004 and Spring 2005, satisfaction for all train companies rose by 8 points from 54% to 62% while the results for South East Trains rose twice as fast - from 35% to 51%.

After the transfer to private-sector GOVIA in April 2006, the results for South East Trains stall, then decline. By the Spring 2009 the level of satisfaction with the helpfulness and attitude of staff on Southeastern had fallen to 39%, compared with 51% for comparable train companies.

Is this evidence of public ownership inspiring heroic staff performance? Only a specific study could answer that. For now, it may be safer to conclude that good management can improve customer service in both public and private settings.

Though would customers of Northern Rock agree?

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