How to calm Civil Service unrest

Last week, tens of thousands of civil servants took to the streets in a series of separate strikes. 

Staff at job centres and benefits offices took industrial action over pay and the imposition of a new performance measurement system by the Department for Work and Pensions, while staff at the Office for National Statistics and the prison service took action over pay.

Personnel Today asked some experts how they would deal with the massive unrest among public sector staff, if they were in charge.

David Werran, chairman of public sector consultancy Governetz

The problem in the Civil Service is not so much low pay, but on the application of systems that have produced glaring anomalies and inequalities throughout the service.

Over the past 10 years, national pay bargaining has been abandoned and in its place there are now around 200 separate pay agreements.

Second, the Civil Service trade unions have, over the years, succeeded in reaching national awards that minimise regional pay differentials. Thus, we have a situation where private sector pay varies across the country in the light of local market conditions, but the pay rates in the Civil Service are more uniform.

It is the Government’s responsibility to ‘bite the bullet’ and start discussions with the unions aimed at re-instituting national pay bargaining on the basis of provincial differentiation. This is the only way to iron out the current imbalances, make it possible to perhaps pay more for London staff and at the same time make the significant public-interest savings in the public sector payroll at a regional level. Not least it will re-introduce the notion of equity, restore faith and remove a great cause of understandable grievance.

Mike Emmott, head of employee relations, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

It may not be too difficult to get workers to take symbolic action when they feel their interests are not being taken into account. The issue is not just pay, as many people feel apprehensive about the prospect of major reorganisation and redundancies affecting government departments. But it is unlikely that many civil servants will be willing to take prolonged industrial action. History suggests that in any case this is unlikely to be particularly effective. So management will not feel under too much pressure to make ‘concessions’.

The best strategy will generally be for departments to explain their position directly to the workforce while staying in touch informally with union officials so that the dispute can be resolved as speedily as possible.

It is not easy to win hearts and minds when you are not in control of events, and CIPD surveys have consistently shown low levels of trust in Civil Service management. But senior managers have to play the hand that ministers have given them. They have to do their best to exercise leadership by showing that they at least understand the concerns of their staff. It can be a thankless task.

Paul Holmes, Liberal Democrat shadow minister for work

Proper two-way discussion is the key. At the moment, the Department for Work and Pensions is in the crazy situation of paying more than 10,000 of its full-time workers so little that the Treasury has to pay an additional £54m in Tax Credits to top up their low levels of pay.

These are not the feather-bedded, highly-paid civil servants of popular myth. And this shows a shocking lack of joined-up thinking.

By talking directly to staff, solutions can be found that benefit staff and employers alike and will put an end to this crazy logic. Instead, the Government seems hell-bent on imposing pay and appraisal schemes without any consultation.

Creating an atmosphere of support for frontline workers and giving them the right tools to do their job will help increase motivation. But the Government is cutting training, increasing caseloads, announcing large-scale job cuts as Budget headlines, and imposing a pay deal. This is a textbook case of how not to motivate a workforce.

Lucy Bolton, EMEA HR director, RSA Security

You can only solve a situation when it has gone this far by talking and achieving some quick results.

Often in the public sector, the employees have the better-trained negotiators and influencers – the managers are often powerless, which is when they feel their backs are against the wall and the only way out is imposition of new procedures.

Both sides need to come back to the table and really establish what the objectives are.

Once you start rewarding according to performance, and indeed potential, then motivation kicks in. This happens regardless of salary level. There has to be some employee measurement in place.

Often whether a process succeeds or fails comes down to how it is ‘sold’ to employees, and how involved they are. The private sector has benefited from appraisals and performance-related pay for a long time now. The key is excellent manager training, a faith in the integrity of HR to ensure fairness and the maths that shows that where there is a defined ‘pot’ for increases, the employees who consistently perform well will benefit. Those that do not perform? Well maybe the Civil Service won’t be for them in the future.

Peter Stannard, branch organiser from PCS DWP London SW branch

“The performance appraisal scheme is the really controversial part of the problem. Under the new scheme management have quotas. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve done. You have your interview with the line manager and they have to make a recommendation that then goes to a panel of managers who then have to put people into certain categories. Only 5 to 10 per cent can get in the top ranking.

From next year, people’s annual pay rise, not just bonuses, will be linked into what rank they get. People have no control over what happens to them. Soon it’s all going to be about the luck of the draw.”

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