Public sector cuts need long-term focus

The public sector cuts lack a strategic approach and focus on the short term rather than the future, argues Angela O’Connor, CEO of HR consultancy The HR Lounge.

Formerly chief people officer at the National Police Improvement Agency, she has her experience of the public sector to thank for putting her where she is today, and thinks that the Government should think more holistically about how it wields the axe.

I spoke at an employee relations and engagement conference recently. The speakers commented on the pertinent issues of the day and, invariably, discussion moved on to the challenges facing the public sector. The Rt Hon Francis Maude MP spoke about the Government’s view of employee relations.

All the right words were present. There was talk of mutual respect, every job lost being a personal tragedy, the need to make it easier for business to invest, and the recognition that engaging public sector staff was very important.

Angela O'ConnorHe also discussed the rights of taxpayers and their demands for efficiency. Fine words indeed, but they rang a little hollow for many members of the audience, including me.

The overall impression given by public sector cuts is of a major disconnect in the approach. The cuts that are being made now will have serious implications for the future and many are concerned that a strategic approach is absent.

High unemployment

Let me give you an example relating to one small area of London that I know well.

The media recently ran a story about Northumberland Park in Tottenham having the highest unemployment rate in London, at 13.7%, often leaving different generations of the same family without incomes. Tottenham is also the area that was the tinderbox for the start of the recent riots in London that led to people losing their homes and businesses, and that caused a national outcry.

Northumberland Park is also the area where I was brought up and where many members of my family still live. When I was a teenager, I left school with few qualifications, but with five passable GCSEs you could find employment, so I began work locally in the civil service. As I moved into local government, it became clear to me that I would need a degree if I wanted to achieve more in my career. Thanks to my local authority employer, I was able to do this. I was sponsored, and, while working full time and juggling childcare, I went to night school two nights a week and eventually earned myself two degrees. These achievements gave me the green light to push ahead with my career and earn enough money to buy property, fund a growing family and contribute to the economy through taxes.

If I were a teenager in Tottenham now, what would my chances be? Government cuts affect education in some of the behind-the-scenes services that voters might not notice. These are often services that enhance the chances of young people and, therefore, national outcomes. The ethnic minority achievement grant is a case in point. This was set aside to end the underachievement of ethnic minority pupils and went to local authorities with large numbers of ethnic minority pupils, to support their individual needs. The teaching support that was available is now no longer ring-fenced, and is disappearing. This will have a damaging effect on the attainment levels of pupils. Due to the cuts, there will not be the jobs available at junior entry level in most public sector bodies, unlike when I was starting out.

Further education funding

Funding to support employees in further education is also taking a hit as training and development budgets are squeezed. When government ministers claim that they are cutting “unnecessary waste”, I begin to worry. The reduction of education services, the closing of libraries, the reduction in training and development budgets, and the less than holistic focus on the end result for the nation leave me with concerns.

Don’t get me wrong, there is waste in public services, just as there is any sector. Public sector leaders have spent years working to make services more effective and economic, and have had to reduce staff numbers dramatically when necessary. Difficult decisions are part of any leader’s usual working day. However, the current speed and depth of job losses in the public sector has been challenged by commentators such as John Philpott, chief economist at the CIPD.

Combine the job losses with a lack of planning for skills that will be needed in the future, the high numbers of competent and highly skilled people leaving the public sector and the lack of opportunity for young people and we are faced with an escalating crisis.

I do not doubt that the coalition Government is doing its best to tackle the massive economic problems of this country. However, more emphasis must be placed on giving hope to people, particularly in deprived areas, that they will at some point be able to find work and support their families. They aspire to be part of the solution, rather than always being seen as part of the problem.

The support of the public sector was the foundation for the successful career and life that I enjoy; let’s not deprive others of the same opportunities.

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