Scorn at public sector working practices is familiar in the private sector and the media – but last week, state-paid managers joined in the onslaught themselves.
Management Agenda 2008, a comprehensive survey of 479 managers across all fields by research firm Roffey Park, found those in the public sector rated their organisations lower in just about every category than those in the private sector.
For example, only 4% of public sector managers said that under-performance was tackled ‘very well’ in their organisations, compared with 22% in the private services sector.
Similarly, just 6% of public sector managers reported that morale was high in their workplace, compared with 33% in the not-for-profit sector.
State-paid managers gave themselves a hiding on nine counts, including their ability to manage change, staff cynicism about values, the perception of their boards, frequency of political behaviour, and levels of bullying and bureaucracy. They also reported the lowest collective sense of purpose.
The only consolation appeared to be that the beleaguered sector offers more access to flexible working than elsewhere.
“The report clearly shows that the public sector fails to tackle under-performance and is victim of a higher level of internal politics, poor people management and negative board reputation,” said Roffey Park senior researcher Annette Sinclair.
“Many current studies identify these issues as both symptoms and causes of failing organisations. The report suggests strongly that the public sector is not well.”
So why are the people who manage nurses, teachers, civil servants and police officers doing so much worse than those in charge of, say, warehouse staff or waiters?
Stephen Moir, president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association, said ongoing anger about public sector pay could be making life hard for its managers.
“If some of the respondents are working in the police force, they are bound to say they have motivation and morale problems right now,” he said. Thousands of off-duty officers marched in Westminster last week to protest at their staged, sub-inflation pay rise.
Public sector managers’ jobs are also made harder by the intense spotlight on them and the burden of legislation, according to Moir. “Managers in the public sector are more challenged by levels of legislation and duties,” he said. “There is over-regulation, over-complication and over-inspection.”
Angela O’Connor, chief people officer at the National Policing Improvement Agency, said most public sector managers would agree that there is too much red tape. “We waste public time and public money by being embroiled in ridiculous bureaucracy – some of it self-inflicted,” she said.
Jo Causon, director of marketing and corporate affairs at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), pointed out that recent emphasis in the public sector on performance management and target setting could have increased awareness of the issue, leading to some of the self-critical responses.
“In many ways, it can be a very positive drive towards a public sector environment where there are clear targets to achieve and individuals are accountable in reaching these goals,” she said.
However, CMI research found that low morale was just as much of a problem in the construction and finance sectors as in the public sector. Any organisation failing to tackle under-performance would incur a raft of problems, Causon stressed. “Performance management is important, whatever sector you are in. If you don’t tackle poor performance, then it will have an impact on productivity and morale.”
Moir pointed out that because the public sector operates with taxpayers’ money, it is more likely to work with poor performers than to pay them off.
He refused to accept that public sector management was any worse than that in the private sector. The survey was too small to prove this, he insisted, with many managers moving between the sectors.
One thing managers heading from the private to the public sector should be prepared for, according to the Roffey Park survey, is an increase in office politics.
Three-quarters of respondents from the public sector said political behaviour – the biggest cause of workplace stress – had increased in their organisation in recent years, compared with half of those in the private sector.
The results come in the same week that University College London published ground-breaking research about public sector workers and stress levels.
Doctors studied more than 10,000 civil servants and found that one in 10 were suffering from chronic stress, and provided scientific evidence that this stress can lead directly to heart disease.
“All sectors are experiencing structural and systemic change but, compared to private and not-for-profit sectors, change in the public sector is more prolific,” said Roffey Park’s Sinclair. “The public sector is seen as less capable of managing this change effectively – set against a backdrop of elevated office politics, little faith in leadership and organisational values, and less inclination to manage under-performance.”