In which I settle down to watch the Punch and Judy Show …

This post first appeared in Patrick Butler’s cuts blog in Guardian Society on 21 October. It’s reproduced here by kind permission of The Guardian.

I don’t often make the time to watch Parliamentary occasions but I thought I should make an exception today. So using my flexible working pattern I secreted myself away, with a bun and a bottle of pop, to watch events unfold at Westminster. I’m one of the early casualties among the 490,000 anticipated job losses so I was interested to see how today’s comprehensive spending review announcement would talk about the human side to all this.
What to make of it? Well, the human side was an absent figure for most of the event. What did strike me though was the great good cheer shown in the Chamber when the Chancellor announced the cuts would only be 19%.
It feels like a very strange world indeed when elected representatives can hoot and holler at the news that 490,000 of their fellow citizens are definitely going to be out of work. I’m not sure jumping with glee as the ‘headcount’ begins to roll really communicates that we are all in this together.
It’s worth saying that figure again. 490,000. There are times when numbers hide more than they reveal and this is an example. For each of those 490,000 will have an unplanned and unwelcome journey to make and I know that’s painful. So where will those jobs go?
A big feature of the speech was cutting administration and back-office costs. These are not notoriously well-paid areas so you have to lose more people to achieve a given level of savings. But the work they do doesn’t necessarily disappear. It just gets displaced. And in organisations shrinking in size to focus on the front line that usually means front line staff get to do more of the back-office stuff.
I was interested in what the Chancellor said about headcount and turnover. I’m not sure that 8% turnover – sometimes charmingly called ‘natural wastage’ – will get near the 490,000 figure. In my recent experience folks have been clinging on to the jobs they have with few being brave enough to risk jumping into a bigger fire. Or frankly risking the pension and other rights they have built up. Losing many thousands of low paid public sector workers sits uncomfortably alongside the notion that those with the broadest shoulders should bear their fair share of the burden.
The Chancellor also said the government felt responsible for the people that it employs and would do everything it could to help. Given the habitual leaking of information about cuts many public servants have put up with over the summer, when their relatives often knew more than them about what was going on simply by following any rolling news channel, there will be a little scepticism over that claim. But it’s a welcome one and I know colleagues will want to see exactly how the promise of help gets delivered.
He also said that elsewhere individual employing organisations would have to be responsible for decisions in their own areas. A bit of distancing I thought that may be difficult to sustain as the cuts bite.
What was also striking was the differential impact of the cuts and there will be a hell of a lot of devil in the detail. Even in the protected NHS where colleagues I have spoken with are preoccupied with working out where, if anywhere, they might end up in the new NHS. But colleagues in the local government world will be sucking in their teeth at the 7.1% annual savings councils will have to find over the next four years. Smaller district councils that do not provide ‘favoured’ services like education and social care will be giving this a lot of thought.
Spreadsheets and financial models will be re-running right now to work out how to balance the books. It will not be easy and local politicians will be facing some unpalatable decisions in the run up to local elections next May. Public servants I know in local government are anticipating a lot of fun advocating early action that avoids deferring stuff for political reasons. Delays make the savings targets steeper.
But at least the waiting is over … sort of. CSR2010 is really only the overture to a much bigger piece of work. The Chancellor talked about detailed departmental ‘business’ plans that would shortly be published and through which the public could hold the government to account. Public servants will be watching for these with a lot of interest. This is where some of the painful stepping stones for this unprecedented experiment in cutting spending will be clearer. But they will not be the full picture.
Much of the public sector is run through other organisations and it’s their planning that will determine whether the savings get delivered. It’s in these organisations where staff are worried and distracted while still trying to deliver to their customers that this planning needs to be done. It’s hard do all that needs to be done all at the same time.
I was tickled early in the speech to hear that savings within it had been audited. Before being achieved? That’s quite a feat and brings me to my final thought.
More than once in the announcement I was reminded of what an old public service hand said to me at the start of my career. We were talking about the Community Charge in the midst of all the riots and other problems at the time. He said the whole episode was a classic politician’s mistake. When I asked what he meant he said too few leading politicians have any significant executive experience. That means they mistake making an announcement about something as that something actually happening. My colleague said to make anything happen takes good staff work.
 
To make anything as complicated as the CSR2010 happen will take outstanding staff work. The nuts and bolts of planning harnessed with the people management skill that often goes absent during major change. Taking 19% out of any budget is hard. Out of a national budget is a whole order of magnitude trickier.
 
From where I sat with my bun and my bottle of pop I wondered if the gleeful ranks on all the green benches really know how hard this will be. After watching the braying, pointing and yelling on offer today I’m not at all convinced that they do.

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About redundantpublicservant

A redundant UK public servant looking for work, sharing his experiences and providing a space for others to do the same.
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