This post orginally appeared in Patrick Butler’s Cuts Blog on 19 November 2010 and appears here by kind permission of The Guardian.
It’s open season on public servants. These are just a few of my “favourites” from the national press:
• @Baskers-gate – in which a national newspaper decided to vilify a public servant for … er, being a real person;
• Potplant-gate – in which ministers criticised Quangos for providing foliage for office space (having not noticed their offices had the same greenery);
• Junket-gates – in which various organisations have been denounced for hiring venues for events some of which have been – gasp – near the coast or racecourses;
• Goldplated-gate – in which any aspect of a public servants terms and conditions are automatically assumed to be unearned.
You’ll have your own favourites. Perhaps we could make a scrapbook for our children and grandchildren so they can see what we did in the war on waste.
There comes a point when any old rubbish repeated often enough becomes an accepted truth. That’s where we are at with public service and public servants. The starting position is that we are all lazy wasters, shamelessly feather-bedded and watching the clock until 5pm. Of course I should not miss the added sophistication of the frontline good; back-office bad analysis now also being bandied about.
To summarise if you work in public services but you are not a doctor, nurse, firefighter, paramedic, teacher (who wants to open your own school), police officer or member of the armed forces, then you are a disgusting waste of public money and you should do the decent thing. (The revolver’s on the table.)
Of course the pervasiveness of this narrative saps your sense of humour. Folks I have known for years who work in the private sector have caught the bug too. “It’ll be strange for you,” said one, “if you have to get a proper job in the private sector.” Nice.
But, while the knockabout may be fun for politicians and the media, those of us looking for work are wondering what this means for our job prospects. Many message boards on these stories have comments from business people saying they wouldn’t employ former public servants. Yesterday’s debate on this site’s Local Government Network blog had some interesting examples of this mood including:
My belief, built up from commercial dealings with over 30 different Public Sector Organisations, is that the workforce tend to be ineffective, inefficient and regretfully unsuccessful. @PublicSectorSceptic
There appears to be no drive for change as many individuals fear that change may result in the loss of their job. @CrazyDave2010
So, the situation for many public servants seems to be: we don’t want you doing your current job; and, we don’t want you working in our business.
Some public servants I know are trying to get around this Catch22 by arranging their CVs so that the employment history comes a long way after all their achievements (expressed generically) and in a small font. Who knows if it will work?
It’s this sort of paradox that prompted me to start blogging, trying to show how the changes coming from deficit reduction are hitting those of us working in the public service. But openness and transparency are part of this problem. Each publication round of public spending detail has seen apparently poor spending decisions being hung around the necks of all public servants. Feeding the settled narrative about how feckless and useless we all are.
But there’s a wider issue here. How the hell does anyone think public spending reductions will be delivered without well led and motivated public servants doing the work on the ground? Or are we waiting for the mops to come to life to clean our schools and hospitals? Perhaps the housing benefit systems will just automatically determine entitlement? The soiled sheets will change and wash themselves? Police cars will service and repair themselves without the intervention of mechanics?
Waving a wand in Whitehall will not get things done. For that you need boots on the ground. The poor bloody infantry of public service. The wasters … not.