Sunday, 29 January 2012

All those public sector perks!

No doubt, following on from the outrage felt by most people about Hester’s bonus, bankers’ bonuses in general, the greed and lack of remorse of Jean-Claude Mas etc. etc. the media will soon turn our attention back to the undeserving public sector employee. After all, councils will be setting budgets soon; Council Tax for 2012/13 will be announced and, if it goes up at all, there will be an outcry about the cost of council workers, their gold-plated pension schemes etc. I’m bracing myself for the next onslaught.

The CIPD published its fourth annual survey of Employee Attitudes to Pay earlier in January, and key findings included the following:

“By sector, 51% of private sector employees have had a pay rise since the start of 2011, 45% did likewise in the voluntary sector, but just 24% of those in the public sector have received an increase.

Among those receiving a pay rise the average (median) increase was 2.5%
The proportion of employees who have been subject to a pay freeze has increased from 24% in 2008 to 48% in 2011. 

By sector, public sector employees (70%) are most likely to have seen their pay frozen in 2011, followed by those in the voluntary sector (48%) and the private sector (42%). In addition, 5% of employees saw their pay cut”.

Yes, ordinary employees across the board are receiving less, but public sector workers on average fared worse last year. That’s OK, you might think, they have loads of other benefits that compensate for pay freezes (or in the case of some councils, pay cuts.) This led me to compare benefits between the public and private sector and see if I could think of any benefit at all enjoyed exclusively by public sector employees. Before I give my conclusion, a disclaimer…

My experience is in the public sector, but I read widely about reward in other sectors and of course, know plenty of people who work for private employers – both large corporate employers and other employers of varying sizes, some of whom seem to offer the bare minimum they can get away with and stay legal. I know less about the voluntary or third sector, so am not including that in my comparison.

So, what benefits are exclusively enjoyed in the public sector, to the point where politicians and the media have no problem in denigrating us?

¨     Final salary pension schemes? No. Some still on offer in private sector, and many public sector final salary schemes closed to new entrants.
¨     Flexible working? No. All good employers employees offer this and appreciate the positive impact on morale. However, just as some roles in the private sector do not lend themselves to this, the same goes for the public sector.
¨     Job security? No. Just look at all the NHS redundancies made in 2011.
¨     Occupational sick pay, more generous holidays and maternity pay schemes? No. Most good employers run reasonable occupational schemes that offer more than the statutory minimum. OK, so some public sectors may not manage sickness absence as well as they could, but this has changed hugely in recent years, and yes, it is possible to be sacked in the pubic sector!
¨     Antisocial hours shift allowance? No. Also available elsewhere, but I concede less so in the private sector and this is in need of modernisation in the public sector.
I could add many more, but the above examples appear to be cited the most by our critics.

I compiled a long list of other benefits, and guess what? I think I may have found some that are exclusively enjoyed by some in the private sector! Usually, this is when times are good, and that’s the trouble, public sector pay and conditions are relatively stable so they appear ‘generous’ in austere times. Here’s my list of benefits most public sector employees can only dream about:

¨     Share options
¨     Profit sharing schemes
¨     First class travel (this may occur in the higher echelons, but the Chief Executives I know in the    public sector travel standard class.)
¨     Private healthcare
¨     Fully paid or subsidised Christmas or other celebratory parties
¨     Conferences abroad (with treats thrown in for partners)

My appeal to the media and others is for balance and fairness. Public sector employees do a wonderful job on the whole and often have to cope with highly complex, unpleasant or distressing situations. Please stop this negativity.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Basic needs, security needs and the ‘back office’.

As promised, here is my blog on why I never use the term ‘back office.’ I prefer the term ‘essential corporate support’, and will say why, but first of all:

I think ‘front-line’ staff in the public sector are invaluable. Many of them do jobs that shape, support and influence society, but with little recognition and currently, lots of government and media derision or ill-thought through pontification on how they could better do their jobs. However, many other staff behind the scenes work in public services for strongly vocational reasons and have a very high public sector ethos. They are giving of their skills to ‘make a difference’ to use a very overused phrase. However, it is predicted by the CIPD’s chief economic adviser that public sector employment will fall by 30,000 per quarter this year. Worrying. Losing ‘front line’ professionals is terrible news for members of society who depend on them (but that is not the focus of this blog.)

Hang on, I’m not too keen on ‘front line’ either as it implies there is a war going on in the public sector… or about the public sector? Maybe ‘service user/customer/client facing/delivery’ roles or even ‘professionals’? Of course, many essential corporate support staff are also qualified professionals, so this is a debate for another day! It does however, support my argument about valuing them equally, and not lumping them together into an anonymous, boring and dispensable-with group called the ‘back office.’

Back to the predicted continued reductions in public sector employment. Could these be these superfluous, paper-pushing roles never needed in the first place? Are they ‘office’ and ‘delivery’ roles (other terms we could use) that will lead to reduced services? Are these roles that are being outsourced to save money, so some of them will still exist but become private sector? All of this has been going on, although I would argue nowhere near as many roles in the first category as the public is led to believe.

So, why do I prefer the term ‘essential corporate support’? Well, as this blog’s title hints, I have been thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and why high quality corporate services make sure that the pyramid’s foundation levels are secure. Basic needs include air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sleep etc. The next level, safety needs, includes security, order and stability such as steady employment. By essential corporate support, I mean such services as HR, Finance, IT, Performance Analysis, Risk Management, Administration etc. Without those, or with an inadequate level of those services, most ‘service delivery’ staff could not do their jobs effectively.

As it is the service I know the most about, I will take HR as an example. First of all, is being paid on time and correctly a basic need or a safety need? You could argue either or both. Secondly, if one month someone is paid incorrectly, what does this do for their safety needs? I would argue that in such cases it is imperative that they can get hold of someone who knows the organisation, the terms and conditions in operation, and is able to explain what has happened, or better still, make sure errors don’t happen in the first place. The idea of having to contact a call centre operated by an outsourced contractor, and speak to someone not authorised to use their discretion, when feeling anxious about, say an underpayment on your salary, is not attractive. If you don’t get an understandable response, the anxiety, upset or annoyance felt can impact on your effectiveness (as your basic and safety needs are under threat.)

Making sure the data held about all employees is correct, always up to date, held confidentially and then used correctly to ensure salaries are paid takes more work by essential corporate support than many people realise. Not doing this properly, or cutting corners by getting this on the cheap, or cutting back on the ‘back office’ too harshly can end up costing more, when you factor in the time and energy taken to rectify problems – often by more senior (and higher paid) people or by individuals who should be out there delivering the ‘front line’ services.

You can apply the same argument to advising on annual leave, sickness absence, training, professional development, job design, recruitment, terms and conditions, dealing with conduct or capability issues, advising what to do if someone feels bullied etc. The list could go on, but I hope you get the picture. If these activities are not done effectively by essential corporate support, who understand and believe in the organisation, namely HR in this example, what happens? Nothing? Poor service? Disjointed services? Low morale? Whichever of these, employees’ basic and safety needs become increasingly unmet.  

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Which theory describes public sector workers?

Media propaganda about public sector workers not knowing the meaning of real work and counting time until they receive their ‘gold-plated pensions’ has reminded me of McGregor’s theory X and theory Y. This theory is one of the basics of management theory and was originally proposed in his book 'The Human Side Of Enterprise', published 52 years ago. I can’t recall, when learning about this theory, ever noticing the name of the book. I do however find it quite appropriate when, in Probation, we are embracing the commercial approach. In other words, we are encouraging our staff to be enterprising and innovative.

This is against a backdrop of poor public perception of public sector workers, perpetuated by the government and the media. Added to this, we have to demonstrate our value and worth and why we can deliver better services than most of our private sector (potential) competitors in an environment full of rules and restrictions, many of which do not apply to the private sector. Sounds to me like rules and a reputation to match in line with theory X. Just to remind us:

Workforce according to theory X:
Lazy and work shy
Need to be directed
Only work for fear of punishment
Need punitive and restrictive supervision

Workforce according to theory Y:
Find the desire to work natural
Take pride in their work
Accept and/or seek responsibility
Use imagination and creativity
Can be trusted.

I could dissect each of the above statements, but what I want to say is as follows. In my experience most of the colleagues I have worked with, and the workforces in the organisations I have known well (and currently) behave like theory Y and respond best to theory Y leadership. Most public sector workers have a strong sense of vocation, whether they work in service user facing roles or in essential corporate support – I will never use the belittling phrase ‘back office’. (A topic for a future blog.)

Of course, there is theory X and theory Y leadership and workforce behaviour everywhere. Leadership, business strategy and organisational processes affect behaviour and performance, not whether it is a public or private sector organisation. However, I firmly believe that theory Y based behaviour towards public sector organisations and their workers by those in power and the media would be the most positive way forward. It would certainly inspire us to use our natural creativity to find solutions in a positive way when we have an imperative to make less go further.