Losing the Will to Serve

July 18, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In 1997, Labour came to power under the promise of protecting and renewing the public services, yet throughout this period they have failed to recognise that the quality and scope of public service provision depends on the commitment and motivation of public service workers. Hence for the last 10 years, the government have forced below-inflation pay awards, effectively pay cuts, on certain sections of public service workers. This latest offer of 2.45% for the majority of the 1.5 million strong NJC workforce has triggered a vote by Unison and Unite members to strike.

Despite the popular myth that all public sector workers have done well under Labour, some have consistently fallen behind on prices and average earnings – including civil servants, prison officers and local government workers. Year on year, through below-inflation pay rises, market-based reforms and centrally driven targets, public sector workers have been demoralised, undermined and devalued. Yet last week I felt a glimmer of hope as the government released its latest report entitled “Excellence and fairness: achieving world-class public services”. This paper argues strongly that:

Fostering a new professionalism in the public service workforce, which combines increased responsiveness to users, consistent quality in day-to-day practices, higher levels of autonomy from central government wherever those at the front line show the ambition and capacity to excel and greater investment in workforce skills.

Here, the government clearly recognises the important role that public services workers play in service provision. In fact in many instances they are the service: there is nothing beyond them and the provision is dependent on their skills and commitment. This was preceded by a speech by Gordon Brown on social mobility, stating “the great test of our time – to build a fairer, more prosperous and upwardly mobile Britain”. Ignoring the fact that this speech pretends again that social mobility only means people going up – this report and this speech show the admirable goals that we could achieve. But when juxtaposed with the below-inflation pay offer, we see a clear disconnection between the rhetoric and reality of this government.

All that is highlighted in the speech and in the report are only really possible through fostering and developing public services, which cannot be achieved without the workforce. If you look at local government workers, it is clear that they have delivered beyond expectations – local services have been a success story – with a high proportion of councils rated excellent, good or improving by the audit commission, these have exceeded treasury targets for efficiency savings.

We need to recognise that decent increases in pay are affordable – the popular argument that pay needs to be held down to combat inflation is disputed by economists – and that it is the staff input that has improved local government performance, and service provision across the board. Public service workers don’t want to have to strike, they want to carry on doing their jobs, but in an environment that recognises their contribution. It’s not really much to ask, but it’s clearly more than the government is willing to offer.

Most of the people who are striking over pay are in fact women and among the lowest-paid in society, and this effective pay cut will no doubt impact on Brown’s flagship child poverty targets. The situation is only made worse by the government’s ridiculous timidity in tackling the bonus culture in the City and excessive executive pay. The government remains, in this area, in the City’s thrall; as it stay silent on these issues but is happy to hold down the pay of some of the least well-off.

We had huge hopes for Labour under Brown: it now seems they are set to collapse. Our electoral analysis highlights that the 4 million voters that left Labour in 1997 were largely public service workers. If we can, in the two short years before a general election, reinvigorate these workers we may seem them coming back, and this can start financially, through a pay award – that is at the very least not an effective pay cut – and continue through reforms that recognise their vital contribution to our public services.

This article first appeared on Compass.

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This post was written by Zoe Gannon

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