Resource allocation in the public sector

Many of you will have read at some time since 1995 Sophie's World, an 'adventure in philosophy' by Jostein Gaarder. Resource Allocation in the Public Sector is of a similar genre - and some. As the title implies, this book analyses the process of how scarce - or at least finite, depending on where you stand - resources are allocated. It examines the competing beliefs and values underlying the public service ethic.

There are numerous titles on resource allocation now reaching the bookshelves, and having reviewed many over the past year, I can say with certainty that this is the one to challenge your understanding, stretch your mindset and stimulate debate.

Many books, Colin Fisher thinks, are holes where the authors sift and sort all the material drawn from their academic excavations. This is a 'heap', and as the author confesses in a Latin quotation from Nennius: Coacervarvi omne quod inveni. Loosely translated, that means: 'I have made a heap of everything I have found.' Don't be put off by this, though, as the density of finds forms a concentration of meaning and a wide range of content.

So the early part of the book explores the heuristics of resource allocation and finds that the value heuristics (rather than a 'rational' approach) follow themes used by officials and managers. The remainder of the book explores resource allocation throughout the public sector to highlight the traces and consequences of value heuristics.

The six heuristics used are: individual need, fairness, utility, deservingness, ecology, personal competence and gain. Readers can conclude what they use and the order of priority they give to each - the author provides an excellent management exercise to explore just this. Clear definitions of these heuristics and good examples give the reader not just a greater understanding of each, but an explanation of day-to-day behaviour and practice.

Following this exploratory and educative journey, the next chapter outlines the varied mechanics of making markets. These are interesting and offer a clear synopsis of market mechanisms and their application in the public sector to date.

Mr Fisher believes that the question confronting people in public service is: 'What in any particular time and place is the most broadly acceptable way of allocating and delivering public services?' This is not the same as asking what the best way is. Mr Fisher's polemic rests on three areas where changes need to be made: collaboration, controls and competencies.

This book is no light read, and neither is it for brief visits. A reference book for many, maybe, but only if you like the genre. So the reference to Sophie's World comes full circle. To give an idea of the variety of references, here are a few: critical illness cover, school dinners, Dante's Inferno, the Hegelian dialectic, pot-holing, public sector policymaking and the regulation of public utilities.

'Sixty pounds?' I hear you say - well if Aldous Huxley was right, this is a book to be studied by many to enhance a proper understanding of mankind, and the worth to so many makes the value so much more.

Peter Buckley

Director of service development and contracting, St Andrew's Hospital, Northampton.