This post first appeared in Patrick Butler’s cuts blog in Guardian Society on 27 October. It’s reproduced here by kind permission of The Guardian.
I never thought it would happen to me. That’s the long and the short of it. I had jogged along in well-deserved obscurity in my bit of public service. As part of the thousand personal bargains we each make I thought security trumped chasing the stellar rewards pursued by my school and university peer group. I thought I did some good too. And, of course, I was content.
Like anyone my age I had seen redundancy from the outside numerous times. Played out on TV news bulletins and in the press. Watching people leave their factories or offices for the last time. Seeing them brush off reporters’ questions or stop, blinking for a moment in the camera lights, to be angry, sad or just confused at what is happening to them. I have been involved in making people redundant too. It was terrible. No right thinking person would feel other than wretched from the experience. But all that third and second-hand experience was little use to me when the music stopped and it was my turn.
Most of us in my part of the public sector world could foresee two years ago that a public sector downturn was coming. It was inevitable. The only open questions were by how much and whether spending increases would slow or be turned off entirely. So we had been planning for significant reductions to our budgets way ahead of last autumn. But as the year turned and we thought about the year ahead, with its election, few of us thought our worlds would change as quickly and drastically as they have.
Even though I had begun to think about what would happen if the worst happened this was, so my managers told me, such an unlikely event that it was not worth spending a lot of time worrying about. With colleagues I kept my head down and carried on.
The change in government rapidly disabused me of any idea that life would carry on in its old, familiar pattern. At work we anxiously tried to read the runes. What did this or that ministerial appointment mean? The RPS household noticed I was getting more than usually distracted. But I couldn’t really explain why.
It was because what had been a dark cloud of anxiety on the horizon was here, at hand, with substance, shape and voice. I thought I began to hear a different tone in comment from newly arriving ministers and the ‘sources close to them’. The public sector and public servants began to attract labels that revealed profound antipathy to them. I’ve been around government changeovers before but this felt different. My under exercised personal danger sensors began to clang. Too late.
My team was told it was ‘at risk’ and redundancy consultation began.
Getting that letter. Standing reading it in our hall was the profoundest shock of my professional life. There, in black and white, was obviously, definitively, unarguably the beginning of the end of my job. I was stunned. Twenty years of hard work, family moves, weeks away, early starts, late returns, lost weekends, missed birthdays, application, experience, camaraderie, fun and service. Over. Gone. Ended.
Consultation about an inevitability is not really consultation is it?
At work I spent time with each of my team trying to help them get thinking about what might happen next. Everyone’s reaction was different and often completely unpredictable. Some couldn’t wait to go if that was our fate. Others were scared. How would the mortgage be paid? What about my pension? How will I find another job?
So along with many thousands of other public servants I entered a strange half-life. Unwanted but not yet gone. Ties that anchored each of us to our work, to each other and, lastly, to our customers sheered one strand at a time until we each found ourselves beached on an unfamiliar shore. Unloved hulks. Past achievements mocked or reckoned to be without value.
Scenes from the last few months come back like memories of a party. There’s an overall shape to the story but I’m not always clear what happened and when.
In the office I noticed I had become more intolerant than ever of corporate nonsense. People complaining about the ‘uncooperative attitude’ of my team got short shrift. Old colleagues not yet caught in the redundancy quicksand were kind but often didn’t quite know what to say. Of course things have moved on and the insecurity is now much wider. In many ways I feel lucky to know when I go and how. For many fellow public servants answers to these questions are a long way from being answered.
Through all of this I’ve tried my best not to think of myself as a victim. Of course, I’ve kicked myself for some of the choices I made along the way. I’ve felt guilty too. I can’t help but wonder if there was something I should or could have done to protect my family. I don’t think so but I still nag away at myself. Especially in the quiet times when I’m alone.
There’s a sense of shame too. Daft, I know. But my parents were in service and I heard a lot, particularly from my mother, about the importance of not losing your place. One of my worst moments in all this was realising that I felt relieved she was dead and therefore spared the worry about us. I know many colleagues have heard first from anxious parents and relatives when news of job losses in their organisations leaked. Horrible.
I started to write about my experiences as a way of helping me to sort out how I was thinking and feeling about what was going on. The love of those close to me, the mutual-support of colleagues and the kindness of strangers in cyber-space have all helped. As have the kicks up the backside administered by folks who say the public sector is nothing special and it’s about time there were fewer of us in it.
Well, here’s one fewer anyway.