Mike Gill 28 June 2016

A ‘new public sector’

Last week (pre that Thursday EU thing you may have also heard about) you may have seen a Unison report that revealed that stress levels of council staff are reaching ‘breaking point’.

It reported the majority of local authority workers are concerned about job security, are suffering incredibly high levels of personal stress and more than half of them have considered leaving their jobs in the last 12 months.

I am pretty sure the uncertainty following the EU Referendum has probably not helped matters but that is a matter for another day....

Sadly, I can not say I was surprised by the Unison findings. I’ve worked with public sector organisations for the last 25 years and I genuinely believe that the current austerity measures are unprecedented. And with that austerity comes pressure and demands on people like I’ve never seen.

As we all know, austerity is everywhere. In this country, across Europe and beyond. It trips off the tongues of newsreaders a hundred times a day and people have even marched in the streets against it. And expect more marches and more reaction from people as the real cuts start to bite.

But remember that ‘austerity’ takes different forms in different parts of the public sector and in different parts of the country. Whatever form it takes in your part of the public service, the key challenge you face is a drive to ensure vastly improved services, reduced – or even no – services, and, inevitably, a lot less money. And you can’t run or hide from it (many have tried and failed).

I’m currently working with several local authorities and NHS bodies who are all facing the prospect of having to reduce resource by up to 30% this year and next. A frankly daunting prospect. Even more daunting is the fact that it’s becoming commonplace - even where there are apparently ring-fenced budgets, efficiency savings are expected. And if those kind of saving don’t cause stress to those working within public services, well, I am not sure what will.

So we are starting to see the real impact it’s having on the ground for local government colleagues up and down the land. For example, it was reported that Hull City Council recently asked its entire workforce to consider taking voluntary redundancy. Understandable but that don’t sound like a measure that will improve productivity, build morale and generally get the best out of staff (remember we need to deliver more for less).

However, the harsh reality of austerity is that actual reductions do have to be made somewhere. It doesn’t mater how good you are or how high you are in your sector’s performance table, you still need to find efficiencies.

With a staff at breaking point, local government is faced with a skilled workforce hoping for, at best, retirement, redundancy, or a job offer in the private sector. Remember these are the very same people who are at the heart of our public services, who we need and reply upon to contribute towards reaching positive outcomes, to lead through innovation and to deliver the ‘more for less’ mantra. It remains to be seen if the promised private sector growth is able to swallow up the numbers leaving public services.

Ultimately there’s a growing pressure on our public sector managers, who are the backbone of public service delivery. Austerity is challenging the claims of their staff to a future in public service. And most importantly, austerity is challenging the very future of the service they hold dear and the delivery of services to people who really need them.

It’s therefore vital our public sector managers present their services in the best way to ensure everyone understands what they do, how much it costs and demonstrate why people should cherish the service they are responsible for.

I am sure most managers of public services already know exactly what they deliver, how much the delivery costs and have benchmarked their service against others, using local, regional or national comparisons. I am certain they will also already have ideas for making the service better. What’s important now is learning how to present that information in a way that the average person, unfamiliar with the language and systems of the public sector, can understand. This is a ‘new public sector’.

The public sector needs to find ways to engage with people, to excite, engage and capture the enthusiasm of the public - and its staff. It is not an easy task, but it is something thousands and thousands of people in businesses big and small do every single day.

Mike Gill is a partner at management consultancy Libre Advisory, best-selling author of How to Survive Austerity and director of iHive and iDeeter.

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