Saturday, April 09, 2005

The myth of painless cuts

The civil service is an easy target for politicians; it has been said that it is misnamed, since it not civil and does not provide service. But what they are really saying is that is filled with lazy, incompetent or dishonest people. Of course, the same is true of most organisations, and even some parliaments.

It remains true that productivity seems low and absenteeism high. There are some good reasons for this. Traditionally, the civil service has broken down its work into single repetitive tasks, undertaken by individuals given very little freedom of action. In the nature of thingds, many of its operations are either very long-term or completely open-ended. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that workers see their work as a never-ending stream of tedium, something that must be got through to get to the tea break, weekend, holiday, or retirement. It may well be the case that a re-energised, re-structured, well-led, motivated service would achieve a lot more, and end up costing a lot less. But such change would take the investment of time and money.

So I was dubious when first Labour and then the Conservatives began to claim that they could reduce staffing and costs by finding efficiency savings, i.e. by reducing resources but keeping the tasking intact. The Labour claims were modest, but the Conservatives' are ambitious and form a critical part of their budgesting, and deserve detailed scrutiny. They are set out in their document Better Public Services, Better Value, available on

Page 11 deals with Slimming the payroll (incidentally have you noticed that whenever someone talks about creating a leaner, fitter organisation, it is someone who conspicuous by their oesity and ill-health?).

Their plan is to reduce the public sector payroll by 235,000. 91,000 will in fact still be doing exactly the same jobs, but in hived-off functions which have been moved to the private sector (presumably paid the same, but not appearing as the headline public sector payroll). Another 40,000 will be saved by not recruiting. This freeze will mean that existing staff are re-shuffled, rather than new staff brought in. This is perhaps unfortunate if the long-term goal is to achive the revitalisation of the service I outlined earlier.

What of the other 104,000 reduction? This is the core of the policy. They could have said: "we don't need that many, you're sacked". But they don't. They say there will be no compulsory redundancies. So how can you persuade so many to give up their secure jobs-for-life and enter the volatile ageist private sector? The answer is to offer them money. A lot of money. £5.9 billion of government property will be sold in order to offer the staff a redundancy package averaging £57,000.

Unfortunately, a recognised problem with such schemes is that the wrong people leave: the risk-takes, the imaginative, the energetic. So if the Conservatives think that civil servants now are undynamic, inefficient and demoralised, I wonder what they will be like after they have gone through these changes? I'm not sure those affected would agree that the cuts were painless.

No comments: