What is wrong with the British Public Sector?

What is wrong with the public sector?

Most people feel that the public sector is in crisis, with low staff morale and too much bureaucracy. The question is can anything be done to improve things?

The Public Sector used to be an eccentric collection of largely autonomous departments of State and Local Government. It was generally efficient and whilst Salaries were low compared to similar posts in the private sector the work carried a pension which was seen by staff as giving long-term security. people were also loyal to the concept of public service

Another characteristic of the old public sector, particularly in local authorities was that it tended to have hierarchies with few levels between those at the top and those at the ‘delivery end’. The whole system worked because everyone knew their role within departments and they had clearly defined operational boundaries, within which they operated as professionals. They, therefore, had time to become experts at what they did. As there was a relatively flat hierarchy, career progression was the exception rather than the rule. Those who did ‘get on’ usually did so on the basis they were knowledgeable and experienced, generally respected, and likeable. All very simple.

Since then, however, there have been some significant developments that have changed the culture and nature of the public sector. It has gone from being a simple collection of diverse but skilful departments, staffed by experienced professionals, into a data, training obsessed, and micromanaged behemoth that no longer serves the needs of those who work in it. The current reality of public sector employment drives far too many off sick due to workload pressures, lack of resources at the delivery end, and a remote entitled and out of touch senior management. Nor does the public sector work for those it is supposed to serve, the public who by and large pay for it.

So, what has gone wrong? When the public sector was being created or in some instances ‘nationalised’ after the Second World War the only systems model in existence was the industrial business model. The industrial business model, based as it is on capitalist wealth-based elitism and unfairness is characterised by top-down control, with layers of management and ancillary departments that support whatever is the core business activity of the organisation. Let us imagine widget making is the core business.

Any widget manufacturing firm may need Human Resources, training, and finance departments, or it can buy these in from elsewhere. All these ancillary roles create costs that must not impede key business, and they must continue to allow control of business risk from the Board of Directors through managers to the staff.  All together the aim is efficient widget making and a successful firm that makes a profit, can support its ancillary departments, take risks, and not fail.

In the earliest iteration of the public sector (I am excluding the military which has structures requiring different control needs) the application of this industrial model, whilst ‘top down’ was reasonably flat. Workers were classified by their role for example practitioner, the senior practitioner of this or that, and a Chief Officer with a few ranks in between, maybe a deputy to the chief officer. All colleagues would know the purpose of the department they worked in and would gain decades of experience protecting children, managing offenders, providing housing, maintaining highways or the upkeep of Parks and Gardens. From the 1940s until the turn of the twenty-first century this model worked reasonably well but even back then did and still does have difficulties that have come to define its failures today.

First among its difficulties is that this model has no inbuilt ‘check’ on inefficiency, such as loss-making, or going bankrupt as is the case in the private sector. This was less of an issue in the past when ‘public service’ underpinned the ethics of the public sector, and wages were typically lower than in the private sector. In the past, the public sector and private sectors were recognised as different, with very different sets of values.

Unleashed from quaint ideas of public service or ‘vocation’ the new commercial ethos introduced bit by bit by Governments from the late 1980s onwards, has spawned not efficiency but bureaucracy. No longer does a local team deliver a service, knowing what is required of it by the public, the whole process is overmanaged by ‘Boards’ and or senior managers. These people remote from the front line, promote their ambitions and create growth in non-core areas of business leading to muddle, anxiety, and a loss of focus on what ‘core’ activity is.

To each ‘head’ or senior leader, their bit of activity within the organisation can be treated as ‘core activity be that Protecting Children from Harm, training staff, managing Human Resources, Data Management, or Quality Assurance. The actual core business gets lost among too many priorities.

Service delivery becomes a competitor for resources, human and financial, between departmental heads keen to secure ‘investment for their bit of the organisation. 

The next key problem for the public sector is the development of the accountability framework as a substitute for the health check of profit and loss if the core activity is disinvested.  Accountability, when core staff have no power to resource core business, it causes stress and crisis on the front line. The consequence is staff absence and stress and the response to failure is the inevitable burgeoning and muddle of directionless management and bureaucracy. More training and accountability to cope with problems caused by accountability.

The enthusiasm for accountability would have less impact if it were not for the existence of ‘Data’. Data is the steam loom of Public Service delivery. It has created an environment where people who deliver the core business are subservient to process and the people who collect data, apply standards that require monitoring and inspection or who undertake quality assurance for the benefit of senior management.

You can see the ‘contradiction’ here. The most important people in an organisation those who deliver core business become less important in attracting resources. The measurers, weighers, trainers, and middle managers take precedence as they provide the data to those protecting the organisation from the occasional failure of people at the coal face, the senior managers. Front line staff become mere cogs in an alienating data-based and micromanaged process. This turns professional decision making into ‘expected standards’ within a generic ‘accountability’ framework. It renders the ‘coal face’ and core business a stressful and toxic environment from which everyone wants to escape because the demands are too high, the risks are too great and the rewards too little. But then with no public service ethos, there must be other reasons to enter the challenging public sector coal face, at least for a brief period of a few years or so.

The Public Sector’s insatiable demand for money usually means that resources are forthcoming when they are needed, particularly in high profile areas like Health. However, this extra resourcing all too often gets ploughed into more management oversight and accountability, Quality Assurance, or training. In effect, it does nothing to tackle the problems experienced by coal face practitioners who get more and more stressed whilst other similarly qualified colleagues on the same wage, monitor, evaluate, or criticise their performance in the name of protecting the organisation.

This is the reality for too many front-line workers.  Their workplace is stressful, the core business is poorly resourced relative to ancillary tasks and management.  After the continued prevalence of management expanding to achieve greater organisational control and accountability, there are other major problems with the delivery of many public services. This next issue is perhaps the one that crystallises the problems caused by the others.

The most significant change in the public sector is the emphasis placed on accelerated promotions based on self-declared competence rather than old fashioned ‘experience’. This has allowed a younger and more ambitious group of largely inexperienced staff to quickly gain promotion into management and senior management. Competent at ‘intelligence’ and psychometric testing, they enter the public sector for its well-remunerated career structure, not it’s core business. 

It is not uncommon to hear young people entering a challenging public service role describing an expectation, sometimes born of their narcissism, that they will get out of core activity and go into management, for the lower stress levels, career opportunities and higher salaries. This is where they will acquire their career-defining salaries, as opposed to old fashioned career-defining public service. Beyond the operational level salaries and rewards, packages are often more than one hundred thousand pounds per annum whilst some workers who get such salaries are still in their mid-thirties or early forties.

This latter point captures the most outrageous ‘contradiction’ in the provision of public services, namely the highest salaries are paid to those who take the fewest risks. The risk in any public service is at the delivery end, the police officer, nurse, the social worker, probation, or housing officer who must manage public expectations whilst exercising authority, which is increasingly becoming the authority to say no to an entitled and expectant public. This difficult and increasingly risky work does not go on at the level of the senior leaders as they are encouraged to style themselves.  This topsy-turvy world where risk is not rewarded but is actively avoided by being promoted away from it, and where remote and, meaningless managerial responsibility for the burden of risk carried by others is far too well remunerated. But this is now considered ‘normal’ in the modern Public Sector.

It is considered normal because it meets the needs of an ambitious group of career operators who have been encouraged by governments, employee bodies and the civil service to create the bureaucratic micromanaged public sector as a means of justifying an ‘elite’ workforce of overpaid bureaucrats. The public sector has now removed itself from the core principle of public service which once financed the delivery of services by professionals working directly with and on behalf of the public. It has become a career structure complete with accelerated promotions and plenty of hubris.

If this reality was not bad enough, the managerial solutions offered for stress and ‘burnout’ are either the provision of counselling services to build resilience or the patronising reward and recognition schemes or Blue Peter like ‘shout outs’ for those who manage to hang on in. Both these miss the point that it is the workplace that is toxic, and it is made worse by the data-driven expectations of over-paid management plus the demands of an entitled general public.

It is this that makes the public sector workplace a toxic environment for too many of those who in diminishing numbers carry the risks of the system. The solution seems to be more data, more scrutiny, more management oversight, and more training. But the public sectors growing army of little emperors have no clothes.

So, what is the answer? Well firstly government must not let public sector careerists persuade them that data, accountability, and more management or training is the answer to serious incidents and high-stress levels. It is not, in fact, it is the opposite. We need more qualified and experienced personnel to leave their current ancillary roles or management positions and take their experience back to the coal face. Remove the absurd differentials in salary where workers who carry massive risk do so for little or no reward, whilst senior managers who carry no personal or professional risk are over rewarded for simply protecting the reputation of the organisation. Rather than a levelling up, what the public sector needs is a levelling down, an increase in coal face workers and a stripping out of strategic management and the costs associated with data collection, needless training and accountability. With massive savings in management costs and the costs of losing big bureaucracy, an enhanced package of pay should be available for those front-line staff who shoulder both risk AND responsibility for the increasingly challenging work in all areas of public service The experiment of the elitist public sector ‘career’ could then be ended, and not before time.


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