Welcome to the Public Works blog.

Public Works is UNISON Scotland's campaign for jobs, services, fair taxation and the Living Wage. This blog will provide news and analysis on the delivery of public services in Scotland. We welcome comments and if you would like to contribute to this blog, please contact Dave Watson d.watson@unison.co.uk. For other information on what's happening in UNISON Scotland please visit our website.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Putting the people back into public service with a national workforce strategy

The human resource challenges facing Scotland's public sector are substantial, but a national workforce strategy could help transform public services in difficult times.

I was speaking at the annual Scottish Human Resources Conference in Edinburgh today on the challenges in creating an healthy workforce environment. I have a lot of slides on the challenges, but also offered a few solutions as well!

The long term shift from wages to profits is the main explanation for low staff morale, exacerbated by public sector pay cuts that have resulted in a £1600 a year cut in real wages since 2010. Next up is 50,000 public sector job cuts in Scotland since the crash with most of those in local government. That is also leaving an ageing workforce with a growing proportion of staff in their 50s and the number of young workers as a proportion of the workforce falling by 25%.

The impact of austerity economics is not simply the financial cuts, although a 9% real term cut in the Scottish Government budget is very challenging. The problem is that the cuts come at a time of increasing service demand caused by the recession and demographic change. Add to that the shift from capital to revenue spending and long term asset replacement costs, it all adds up to multiple overall pressures on public services. The remaining workforce is expected to cope through salami slicing of services, while big and difficult spending decisions are avoided.

There has been an reduction in overall employment standards with the use of zero or nominal hours contracts, weak health and safety, growing workplace stress and violence. Increasing work intensity is illustrated by the recent survey that found that only 17% of workers leave their workplace for break and 42% eat at their desks.

I illustrated some of these issues using UNISON's 'Time to Care' report into social care. The race to the bottom in this sector has resulted in low pay, zero hours contracts, minimal training and just not enough time to care properly. I also challenged the obsession with chasing sickness absence management on the back of dubious statistical comparisons with the private sector.

Given these challenges, it is hardly surprising that staff surveys show the public sector struggling behind the rest of the economy. The latest CIPD Survey showed that only a third of workers feel engaged. While generally positive about their line managers, senior manager trust and respect has fallen by 11%. Only a third believe their performance management systems are fair and 41% report excessive pressure at work weekly. These findings are replicated in UNISON surveys of occupational groups. These show a broadly negative view of future service cuts that put service standards at risk. Staff are being asked to cut corners, abandoning proactive preventative work in favour of reactive short term approaches.

The Christie Commission report was published three years ago this month. While there has been some progress, it's workforce vision has yet to be realised. Too many government reform initiatives largely ignore the staffing implications. Public services are delivered by people, not robots.

The Christie vision of a joined up workforce needs a national workforce strategy that stops us wasting effort reinventing the wheel on issues like staff transfer, pensions, secondment and common procedures. A staff governance framework across the public services that engages staff at all levels is an urgent priority. There are some positive initiatives, but they are disconnected and health and care integration in particular will be a huge challenge.

A national strategy should be a framework, not a top down prescription, to enable the bottom up service design envisaged by Christie. The joined up one public service worker approach recommended in that report won't happen without it.


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