Given the abuse, why do people work in the public sector?

A focus on profit misses the point about why people choose to work in the public sector

Given the low pay and the abuse they receive, you have to wonder why people still choose to work in the public sector. For some staff it might be “just a job”, but for many it’s a calling, something they passionately believe in.

But, with the exception of front line NHS and fire service staff, almost everyone in the public sector – from refuse collectors to chief executives, from teachers and police to town planners – is the subject of scorn and criticism from the very people they serve.

Yet public sector staff keep on working for us. Why?

The cynical response is that the jobs are cushy: overpaid, enviably pensioned, and so secure that no one has to work too hard.

Not one of those things is actually true. In fact, in a quite peculiar combination of arguments, the government has managed to suppress public sector wages to well below the market rate, suggesting that this is offset by the wonderful pension packages, while at the same time encouraging employers – including recently Canterbury’s universities – to do everything possible to undermine the value of those pensions and other employment conditions.

Canterbury Christ Church University campus

Alongside this aggressive private sector norms for HR management have been introduced, and attacks on the trade unions which represent the staff. So, if there ever were cushy jobs in the public sector, there aren’t now.

This is, of course, in line with the overriding Conservative ideology that the private sector is better at everything.

Even things it has never done before, like running hospitals and prisons. And despite outsourcing companies demonstrating at every turn that they don’t have the necessary expertise in these areas, the government pushes ahead regardless.

Too many people have grown to accept that ideology over the years, and have forgotten what professionalism in the public sector actually achieves.

The basis of the Conservatives’ argument, if we can call it that, is a very simple preconception: that only money motivates people and organisations, and only profitability separates good from bad businesses.

In the Conservatives’ world, profit is not only good, it is the only driver of desirable activity. That’s why they harass the BBC, for example. Not because the BBC is biased against them, but because they cannot stand that it isn’t run for profit yet still succeeds in producing the most fantastic television and radio.

Such aberrations, in the Conservatives’ view, have to be stamped out because they hamper the ability of real businesses to compete and make money.

So too the NHS. The Conservatives believe that the role of government is simply to facilitate money making: that’s why the railways and British Telecom were privatised. Although in both instances you’d be hard pressed to evidence any improvement in service quality, and allegedly the businesses have in fact been protected from competition by their friends in government.

There is, of course, a whole other argument to be had about how badly business behaves when it is unconstrained by government and by regulation. But this column isn’t about that, it’s about the importance of a different set of values, one which is ignored by our government, but is critical to restoring the effectiveness of our public services.

A focus on profit misses an important reason why people are motivated to work in the public sector, and indeed in the charities and voluntary sector too.

The Kent and Canterbury is home to the trust offices

To put it simply, some people are more interested in doing good than in generating profit.

This dedication to doing good is why NHS staff routinely work more hours than they are paid for, why teachers will use their own money to ensure the welfare of the kids in their classes, and why BBC staff still produce some of the world’s best television and radio.

Because of this fundamental misconception about motivation, Conservatives also misunderstand the politics of public ownership of services.

Instinctively they think that public ownership equates to an ineffective use of the money raised by taxes.

Some, including one or two of our Canterbury councillors, call this model “socialism”. And then equate it with Stalin era Russian communism, which is an unforgivably shallow understanding of a political belief which they claim the right to oppose.

Indeed, if that’s their level of comprehension they really might be better advised to keep their thoughts to themselves.

In the face of overwhelming evidence that public services are best provided by those who serve the public, other councils and public bodies are ending their outsourcing contracts and finding different ways forward.

As an example, last week news came out – revealed in the Journal – that our local hospital trust is to end its contract for support services with everyone’s favourite outsourcing business, Serco.

They will replace Serco with a social enterprise company (SEC). Regular readers will recall that last month I proposed such a structure as one alternative to outsourcing. Is this a viable solution for the hospital trust? And could our city council follow suit with its services? That’s something this column will discuss next week.


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