Personnel Today interviews Jonathan Baume, general secretary, FDA

Not many trade union leaders outlasted Tony Blair – but then Jonathan Baume often stands apart from the crowd.

Appointed general secretary of public sector union FDA while Blair was still trying to convince the country that things could only get better, Baume is currently negotiating that tricky third term a lot more successfully than the former prime minister.

Differing views

All this puts the man at the helm of a union that represents 17,000 senior civil servants and public sector workers in an unrivalled position to judge the effect the Blair years had on the running of government. His verdict, unsurprisingly, marks him aside from most of his peers.

“I think the Civil Service is more effective now than it was when Blair came to power,” he said. “It also offers better training and development, and better pay.”

Baume concedes that Labour struggled with civil service reforms in Blair’s first term, lacking a “clear perspective”. But the formation of the prime minister’s Delivery Unit in 2001, and the ensuing raft of targets and capability reviews for government departments, were key stepping stones of the reform, he stressed.

“I don’t think people would expect to go back to a period without such targets and oversight,” he said. “We now have a process where people can see what is going wrong in departments and focus on addressing those issues.”

One aspect of this regime that did not please Baume was the post-Gershon Review focus on reducing staff numbers. “This meant departments had headcount targets to reach rather than budgetary constraints,” said Baume. “The level of staff should not be the issue. This has just led to an increase in the use of consultants.”

With Blair now off to manage more fractured relationships in the Middle East, it falls to new prime minister Gordon Brown to deal with public service reforms – and his reception has been frosty.

A series of below-inflation pay awards by Brown as chancellor has led a host of unions to threaten combined strikes later in the summer. But here Baume goes against the grain once more, claiming the strikes could be counterproductive – and even do irreparable damage to the union movement. “The unions are at a watershed,” he said. “If relationships with Gordon Brown’s government continue as they did with Blair’s, the trade unions will decline, lose members and influence, and become weaker than they are now.”

Not all about pay

He insists that too much emphasis has been placed on pay levels, saying people work in the public sector for myriad reasons including influence, the chance to serve the people, flexibility and better pensions.

“We must focus not just on pay but on other issues that make people feel it is worth staying,” he said. “The union movement needs to be debating the big picture. The density of membership could easily fall further if we get this wrong.”

The chance to debate the bigger picture has been a motivating factor throughout Baume’s career. After graduating from Oxford University in 1974, he worked at the Department of Employment and Manpower Services Commission, where he became involved in the union movement.

As he became more involved in union business, he decided to join umbrella organisation the TUC to have as wide a canvas as possible on which to work.

“I was at the TUC from 1987 to 1989,” he said. “It was a difficult time, and in those days, at the level I was at, we were in back-room roles. I missed hands-on, frontline work.”

A vacancy arose at the FDA in 1989 and it took Baume eight years to work his way into his current role – which gives him one of the biggest pictures possible.

“Many of the issues I deal with are similar to those I have dealt with in previous roles – problems with performance, grievances and ill health. They are more complex now but the grounding I have had working in the Civil Service and in earlier union roles has helped me,” he said. “I can see things from the bottom up.”

Big HR job

This overview allows Baume to see the huge knock-on effects of Brown’s Cabinet reshuffle. “It is a very big HR job,” he said. “There will be cultural differences and different pay systems and contracts to reconcile.

“It can take up to two years to deal with the consequences of such a profound reshuffle. There are very few ministers even in the same department now.”

Baume lists walking and cycling as his hobbies but, despite these seemingly rural pursuits, continues to live in London. And he has no plans to join the trend for those in senior positions to commute to the capital. Perhaps we should not be surprised he is going his own way.

Baume’s CV

  • 1997 to present: General-secretary, FDA

  • 1994-1997: Deputy general-secretary, FDA

  • 1989-1994: Assistant general secretary, FDA

  • 1987-1989: Assistant, TUC

  • 1977-1987: Facilities work for CPSA union while at Department of Employment and Manpower Services Commission

  • 1974-1977: Graduate administrative trainee, Oxfordshire County Council

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