In which I ‘gate-keep’ …

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.

About redundantpublicservant

A redundant UK public servant looking for work, sharing his experiences and providing a space for others to do the same.
This entry was posted in CSR2010, fairness, job hunting, private sector, Public sector and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to In which I ‘gate-keep’ …

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention In which I ‘gate-keep’ … | A redundant public servant's blog --

  2. Certain idealogues of the Right have been rubbing their hands with glee at the excuse of the economy to have a real go at the public sector. The whole of my life in the public sector – 35 years now – has been with a background of general lack of wholehearted appreciation form any Government, and the feeling that in the wings the real Neo-Cons were wanting to come and dismantle up pretty well entirely.
    The lack of any ‘thank you’ from anyone for what we do is part of this agenda.
    Would be interesting to see the armed forces try to operate without their ‘back office’ units – the logistical tail to any operational unit is far greater than has been the case in any historical time period – and needs to be.

  3. Mean Mr Mustard says:

    While exploiting photo-opportunities in Afghanistan three years ago with ‘our boys’, Cameron actually said he wanted to remove the ‘desk polishers’ in Whitehall.
    That should have been sufficiently offensive to serve as a very clear warning to any civilian working damned hard to support current operations in a military logistics ‘back office’. (I actually took in a can of Mr Sheen and duster on my last day).

    Mr Cameron may wish to note that in a restaurant, the back office function is led by the Chef.

  4. Deborah Parr says:

    What the cutters seem to forget is that the jobs weren’t randomly created by the people doing them -at some point, a committee sat down and said we need people to do x, y and z. Then they employed people to do x, y and z. And now they are saying “Oy you lot! What are you doing hanging around here making the place look untidy at public expense? Be off with you!”.


  5. SCH says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your point about the repetition of untruths / half truths / fallacies becoming the accepted version – the trouble is that there has never been a concerted effort by those of us in the public sector to refute such criticisms strongly enough. When you’re faced with something like this current barrage, it’s perhaps easier to shout back, but for many years now there’s been an insidious, drip-fed undermining of the notion of public service as a public good. The odd comment here, the wild accusation there – we laugh uneasily and shrug and get back to making sure things work and run and deliver. We get referred to as faceless bureaucrats often enough, we become faceless and thus cutting us isn’t like cutting real people with real jobs. Fact is, the public sector may be the oily rag to the private sector’s engineer in the minds of some commentators, but the engine seizes without us.

    • Dear SCH,

      I was speaking with a council officer recently who said that the decline in what the public experiences of his service would be like lights going off on a Christmas Tree. Some bits of the tree would be lit longer than others but with each bulb going the tree would get darker till someone says, ‘Why is it so dark in here?’



  6. ericonabike says:

    There is another scenario where public sector workers [or rather the lack of them] gets better press. Third World countries are frequently criticised for their shambolic, inefficient etc infrastructure, with bribery seen as an accepted part of the system. Would be interesting to try and pinpoint the exact moment when their public employees become professional enough to become bungling bureaucrats.

    • Dear ericonabike,

      The fact that our public service is overwhelmingly free of corruption and governance failures speaks volumes for the people in it ion whatever capacity. It’s taken far too much for granted. The ethos of public service so many take for granted is the product of a hundred years or more of development. When folks have finished tearing it down how much of that culture and ethos will survive?

      Another case of cost trumping value.

      Best wishes


  7. Mean Mr Mustard says:

    RPS and all,

    “Police cars will service and repair themselves without the intervention of mechanics?”
    Well, round my way, it’s the local Skoda garage that does that. But that Plod van deliberately left as a stalking horse in Whitehall will need panel beaters, resprayers and glass fitters too. Which is an increase in the GDP, so It’s All Good.

    But apart from schoolkids with no future and their destructive minority, it seems we aren’t quite enraged enough yet at being insulted by our political masters, and subjected to the ongoing predations of profiteering vampire bankers and their toady corporate politician mates. This chap has it about right –

    “The nation that was your place of birth, the homeland of your culture has been redefined as just a place of work, of ‘inward investment’ of economies and cut backs and economic realities. You aren’t a citizen. You have no claim on this place you were born. You just work here. You can be fired and if you are you have no value any more. Not in the logic of the national plc.

    And just because you bought into the ‘shareholder’ idea doesn’t give you any claim either. You’re just a share holder. And when the plc needs to raise cash or clear out some debts, your ‘stake’ can be written off and discarded as easily as any other bit of worthless paper.

    (In the case of public servants, that’s reducing pay, diluted pensions and scrapping of accrued redundancy rights freely entered into, until it was inconvenient)

    This is what UK plc, or Ireland plc has bought us.

    We have been dispossessed and stripped.

    We MUST NOT let this stand. Where I live, where I was born is NOT a plc, NOT a company, NOT just a patch of land for companies to set up shop and hire me and fire me as ready labour. My connection and ownership of this place, this society, this nation was never for sale. I did not sell it.

    This land bore me as it did my family for generations. There is such a thing as society. It lives in me. I will defend it against anyone who tries to take it from me”.

    • Dear Mean Mr Mustard,

      Thank you for posting the link I will have a look. The extract reminded me of lloyd George’s Newcastle speech in 1909 that you may know. He said (of the House of Lords):

      The question will be asked ‘should 500 men, ordinary men chosen accidentally from among the unemployed, override the judgment – the deliberate judgment – of millions of people who are engaged in the industry which makes the wealth of the country?’ That is one question. Another will be, who ordained that a few should have the land of Britain as a perquisite; who made 10,000 people owners of the soil, and the rest of us trespassers in the land of our birth…?

      Thesedays of course it’s not so much the House of Lords as internation finance but the impact seems to be the same.


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