opinion : POLITICS

Amid the latest kerfuffle over the collapse of Railtrack, I was talking to a smart government minister the other day about the elusive boundaries between the public and the private sectors, almost as unstable as the badlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

With sudden vehemence he started criticising NHS management in his own region, 'too small a pool to provide enough good managers', he complained with evident frustration. Tony Blair, I hasten to add, feels exactly the same way about the House of Commons during a reshuffle.

But my friend's more interesting point was that some industries nationalised by Labour after 1945 retained the very management culture that had made them hated targets for nationalisation in the first place. Specifically, he cited the British Steel Corporation ('dreadful attitudes') and the National Coal Board.

The NCB was successor to the rightly loathed coal-owners who brutalised the miners and cut their pay between the wars. 'They didn't care about people - they built tips above springs, ' he said - a reference to Aberfan, where a water-logged coal tip collapsed on a school in 1966.

I mention this because I am a sucker for the idea of deeply rooted cultural attitudes which survive all the surface turbulence that, say, a Chairman Mao or an Alan Milburn impose.

Mao lived and died like an emperor; Russia remains the brutal autocracy it became in the 17th century, at the same time as the French were developing the mercantilist economics - the opposite of free trade - to which they remain attached.

Where does this notion leave Railtrack and, more to the point, the NHS?

I think It is too early to write off rail privatisation entirely. John Major hastily imposed a dud, fragmented structure (please read last week's HSJ editorial, minister) which split track from train - 'steel from wheel' as Ken Livingstone's ally in the London Underground battle, Bob Kiley, puts it.

More relevant to us is that the old British Rail management culture - and its managers - went out the window in the search for a better way of running the operation.Rail travel numbers shot up all right - the customer side of the business - but they couldn't run the railway: inexperienced engineers and not enough invested in rail maintenance pre-Hatfield, though the shareholders' dividends were maintained.No cracked rails there.

I once heard an astonished Bob Kiley protest that 'they've got refugees from the NHS running the Underground'.And I see the name of Balfour Beatty, among others, crop up as a private provider of both rail and healthcare management. But the mass exodus/switcharound of management talent hasn't happened in the NHS - not yet. As for the purchaser-provider split, It is not as daft as wheel/steel, though It is still being tinkered with after a decade.

So ministers may protest about the pace of change as they struggle to squeeze more value out of the creaking system, but the grim fate of Railtrack and the train companies illustrates the importance of institutional continuity outweighing the dangers of stuckin-mud attitudes.

The current turbulence in privatisation 'successes' like BA and BT underlines the point: no quick or permanent fixes exist; things must change in order that they remain the same. But the Railtrack fiasco confirms a couple of my own prejudices.

One is that the dividend-driven values of the City of London, though a handy spur to discipline, are not always best for the long-term interests of British industry, commerce or healthcare.Marconi was also a Citydriven disaste.

The other is that, unlike the French with their prestigious postgraduate elite management colleges, we have never taken management skills training seriously enough. It is changing. But slowly.