How should we decide what public servants are paid?

Over the past twenty years a new problem has grown around  public service pay at both national and regional level. The introduction of so-called business-methods into public service has resulted in the employment of people who are not career public servants in senior public service jobs.  These people have been commonly employed on fixed term contracts with considerably higher remuneration than career public servants have enjoyed.  That in turn has caused career public servants to seek similar pay and fixed term contracts instead of being employed on a normal contract of employment which meant that someone was employed until such time as they reached retirement age, proved incompetent or their job vanished. This inflation of pay at the top has caused the pay of public servants below the top level, especially those immediately below, to be pulled up in order to maintain differentials.  

The other difficulty is that fixed term contracts have often resulted in massive pay-offs to get rid of people who either fall out with the politicians they report to or who are simply incompetent. 

That these developments have  run completely out of control can be seen from the following report: “ Phil Dolan, 54, received £569,000 of taxpayers’ money in salary, pension and redundancy payments after leaving his post as chief executive of South Somerset district council. He is now acting as a consultant for other local authorities.

 Two other executives at the tiny council also received more than £300,000 each in salary, pension and severance payments last year.

 It means every resident of the district paid the equivalent of £7 in council tax last year just to fund the three men’s pay packages. Taken together, the payments represent the most dramatic example of local government largesse yet to be exposed. (Daily Telegraph 18 2 2011) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/8334915/The-council-fat-cat-earning-570000.html

If public pay is to be brought under control and made fair and reasonable in the eyes of the general public, fixed term contracts need to be outlawed in public service and senior public service pay brought back to the levels of twenty years ago.  Fixed term contracts do not, as their supporters claim save money by making it easier to get rid of people. If public servants were on ordinary contracts of employment, un less they successfully alleged racial or sexual discrimination before an Employment Tribunal, all they would be eligible for if they were sacked unreasonably would be ££68,400.  (In theory, a sacked person could take the matter to an ordinary court but  the cost of that together with the likelihood of costs being awarded against the plaintiff if they lost make this unlikely). The settlements received by senior public servants on fixed term contracts commonly dwarf the Employment Tribunal maximum. That being so, as a matter of simple arithmetic it would pay to move away from fixed term contracts.

 Senior public servants would doubtless resist cuts in pay by trotting out the argument that public servants running large departments or councils deserve remuneration equivalent to that of those running large public companies. It is a bogus argument. Those running private companies have to both raise the money to keep the enterprise going and decide how spend the money: senior public servants have an assured revenue stream and merely have the task of deciding how the money is spent.

That is senior public servants. What about public service pay in general? Consider this press report: “Tube drivers, who now earn £31,300 for a 36-hour week, along with six weeks’ holiday a year, a final-salary pension and free travel for their families….The Tube drivers’ salary is almost twice as much as a nurse or an ambulance worker gets for working longer hours on more complex jobs. It is half as much again as a bus driver, who works 50 hours a week, a firefighter, who works a 42-hour week, or a police officer, who works a 40-hour week – each of them doing very stressful work for the payment they get.” The Evening Standard commenting on a prospective tube strike 02.10.02

Driving an underground train on a partially automated system cannot realistically be considered as more skilled, dangerous and stressful than that of a firefighter. Most people would say the Tube driver had the easier job by far. But is the firefighter’s job more stressful than that of a bus driver who has day in day out to deal not merely with London traffic but in many cases has to take fares as well? And what of a nurse or ambulance crews? Is the emotional distress they suffer more of a burden than the fear a firefighter may feel when going into a fire? Going outside public service jobs, a trawlerman’s job is considerably more dangerous than that of a firefighter’s and the ordinary crew member will not earn as much as an Underground driver. In short, comparability is a minefield.

All our experience shows that “fair” job evaluation never works because no one engaged in the employment evaluated can ever objectively agree on their place in the job hierarchy. Hence, even where deals are struck, dissatisfaction soon breaks out again about “comparability”. As for the public, the pay and conditions arrangements of public service workers are generally so opaque that most people can make neither head nor tail of them. The result is an unstable situation which satisfies no one for long and leads to the general public having an unrealistic conception of what public employees earn, both by underestimating and overestimating pay.

Even in a society where there is a strong natural commitment to public provision, as was the case in the quarter century after WW2, the public servant has a vested interest in working to retain public  confidence. Unless the taxpayers generally continue to think that the money being spent is worthwhile, there will come a time when a government will be elected, as happened in 1979, which will substantially reduce government expenditure and the opportunities for public service. Worse, circumstances can arise as they have done now, where not only the government but also the main opposition party are hostile to direct public provision. Therefore, it is especially important at the present time for public servants to persuade the public that they are both necessary and giving value for money. The best way of doing this is to arrive at a pay structure which is both simple for the public to understand and constructed in such a way to ensure that pay and conditions are adjusted automatically by reference to an objective standard to keep them in line with wages and conditions in private business.

What is needed are criteria based on broad similarities, which the general public can understand and support. Most jobs are much the same in terms of the general demands they make on people – stress, responsibility, intellectual effort and special knowledge or skill. Moreover, those jobs which demand more than the norm also fall into readily identifiable categories. (Anyone who doubts this should try an experiment. Produce a list of twelve disparate jobs of the same general status – all non-management or all management and so on – and which have no emotional plus or minus against them in the public mind – exclude nurses, estate agents etc. Then get people to assess their worth in terms of wages. Most people will judge the value of the jobs to be similar).

Public service jobs are even more readily categorised than the totality of occupations in a society because the range of work in public service is much more limited. In a way the civil service already recognises this because the standard civil service grades cover an  immense variety of job titles. The civil service division of grades into administrative/executive/clerical provide a starting point for the broad criteria mentioned above. These could then be augmented with categories based on danger, stress, responsibility etc. If recruitment becomes a problem in a particular area, the problem can be solved by raising pay through re-grading.

The second problem with public pay is keeping it up to a realistic level. Previous attempts a pay formulae have not been linked to the average male wage and that has been the primary cause of their failure. It has meant that periodically public sector workers have fallen behind private sector workers as governments run into financial trouble.

What is required for all public service jobs is a formula which uses the average male worker’s earnings as a baseline, with the various public service grades being a percentage of the average male worker’s earnings – the percentage could be less or more than 100% depending on the grade of the job. Such a system would mean regular upgrading of pay and avoid the demands for very large percentage increases when pay falls behind.

Should pension entitlements, holiday entitlements and security of employment be taken into account when calculating public sector pay? Only to the extent that they differ from the arrangements of large private corporations. Historically large private companies have offered non-salary benefits very similar to that enjoyed by public servants. That is changing, in particular final salary pensions are rapidly becoming extinct in private business, and any grading of public service jobs should reflect any difference which arises between public and private in the future. However, care must be taken to avoid a situation where public servants cease seeing public service as a secure career. Most of what Government does benefits from having career employees because continuity is a great deal in administrative work, which forms the great bulk of public service employment.

The third major problem is national pay. This is perhaps the most sacred of cows of public service workers and unions, but there is no logic or fairness in such arrangements. If everyone in the NHS receives the same pay for the same job regardless of where they are living, there is in reality no national pay because of the considerable regional differences in cost of living. There are parts of the UK where, for example, teachers earn below substantially below the local average and others where they earn well above the local average. Hence, we have regional pay but quite perniciously the lowest pay is paid inthe highest cost areas. The consequence is that there are often staff shortages in the higher cost of living areas and the quality of staff employed in such areas may be below the standard required simply because no one else can be recruited at the pay levels. The answer is to introduce regional RPIs (Retail Price Indices) – which would include housing costs – and vary wages according to those.

Regional RPIs would solve much of the present difficulty for public service workers in high cost areas. It would not be politically possible to reduce the pay of existing employees, but it could be held static in the lowest cost areas and differential increases given in other areas until regional pay was established. For example, suppose area A is the cheapest area and area Z is the most expensive. Area A gets no increase until its pay level reaches that which matches its Regional RPI, while Area Z immediately gets an increase which raises its pay level to that required by its Regional RPI. Ditto for all areas between A and Z. If their pay is beyond that required by their regional RPI, it remains pegged until pay and cost of living equalise: if below their Regional RPI, they get a rise to match it. As time goes on, the higher pay of the higher cost areas will be balanced by the lower pay of the lower cost areas. There would be no massive extra ongoing expenditure as eventually the lower and higher pay levels would broadly cancel each other out. However, there would be an initial cost because no one will have their pay immediately reduced while some will have it increased substantially.

Much of the problem of regional cost variations could be obviated if the cost of housing was substantially reduced. Government can take the lead by making more housing available in the areas in which it is scarce – see section for detailed suggestions. In particular, a ready supply of housing both to let and buy at reasonable prices would largely overcome the problem of the young who have yet to buy. A middle-aged person who brought their home 20 years before requires far less to live comfortably than someone trying to buy their first property. The latter have near insuperable problems in many places. For example, in inner London, an income of £50,000 would not be enough to buy the most basic family home because a three bedroom property  would be in excess of £300,000 in even the cheapest areas.

The cost of any re-grading could also be offset by reducing the numbers of public servants in some areas. This would naturally meet with resistance from public servants, but if it is done without compulsory redundancies – and it could be – the objection to it is not strong. Staff can be redeployed to other posts and new recruitment to the remaining departments reduced to accommodate them. Attention has to be paid to the age structure of a workforce – no large organisation wantsto find itself in the position of having a sizeable proportion of its staff retiring at the same time – but with an employer as large and diverse as the Government, this should not be an insuperable problem.

Why not simply have wages set by what the market will bear in any particular place? If there is a shortage of nurses in London why not pay them £30,000 if that is what it takes, but only £10,000 if that is a competitive wage in, say, Cornwall? That begs the question of the quality of the recruits you attract and their long term retention. You may get enough recruits at the low rate but they may be of poor quality. There is also the question of motivation once employed. Poor motivation equals less efficient working. Pay should be high enough to avoid those two evils. If higher wages produce greater motivation and ability in the staff employed, the number of staff could be reduced.

The great advantage of adopting a system of broad definitions – tying pay to the average full time wage and Regional RPIs – is that it would be both stable and largely self adjusting. Problems could arise where recruitment becomes an issue. Then, as mentioned above, re-grading might have to occur to raise pay in a particular area of work or region.

All the Public Service Unions and many public servants will instinctively reject what I have suggested because such things as national pay scales and the preservation of jobs are part of the emotional scenery in public service. But public servants do not have a right to determine how many people will be employed by the Government and they should always remember that a public servant must have a necessary and useful function to maintain public support.

What public servants do have is a right to a decent living wage for what they do and to reasonable working conditions which includes the assured opportunity for a career and staffing adequate to carry out the tasks Government sets them. If they start from those two premises they have a much greater chance of achieving their ends than they have in merely maintaining the status quo.

 Above all, it should never be forgotten by the public servant that the taxpayer is the paymaster for all government spending. A statement of the blindingly obvious perhaps, but one which tends to be glossed over by governments who speak as though they are spending their own money  when they talk of “an extra £3 billion for the NHS” or “£200 million to  take crime off the streets”. Public money is not unlimited nor is the level of public spending without consequences for the general economic health of the country.

Most public servants know that there are pluses and minuses in public service and that moving to private employment has its disadvantages as well as being very difficult in areas where private business is not thick on the ground. There is also the example of public sector employees who have had their jobs privatised. They have frequently found that their new conditions of work are inferior to those they enjoyed when in public service. Public servants also know in their heart of hearts that security of employment is still considerably greater in public service than in private business. Consequently, the government has a strong card to play if they choose to play it, namely, continued security of employment in return for the radical changes described above.

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Comments

  • efgd  On February 20, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Seems reasonable to me – coming from the NHS as I do. Maybe if it all went into free marketing there would not be a them and us, public vs private – just them the private. Private never worked well when I was employed in the NHS, so much went wrong with the contractors cutting staff and failing to keep to their contracts. Not totally sure it is any better now. I agree the unions would not like what you suggest, but then the unions do not employ the work force. If they came away from the national wage scale mentality then things could change for the better – though I do understand why there is a national wage scale mentality – it at least starts everyone within that pay-scale a set and understood payment.

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