The government needs to change its rhetoric about public sector cuts. It should not allow Labour the space to campaign against “deep and damaging” cuts by giving any credence to the idea that public spending is being cut by 25% or some such fictional figure. There will be hotheads in the Labour movement who wish to move on from falsely vilifying Tories for seeking and liking spending cuts, to organising protests and strikes against the cuts in particular services. When public spending overall is going to continue to rise in cash terms that would be needless and stupid.
Good management does not seek confrontation with Unions or workforce. Good management understands that leadership is about persuasion, carrying your workforce with you for the changes you need to put through. It is always best to demonstrate why necessary change for the organisation you lead is in the interests of the staff as well as the customers or taxpayers. The government should say they have approved cash increases for every year of this Parliament overall but the settlement is tighter than previous years. In order to serve the public well it will require new ways of doing things and much better cost control. Management wishes to work with staff to see how this can best be delivered. Be open minded about how you do it, but single minded about doing it.
Here Mr Clegg could play an important role from his central position in the Cabinet Office, the hub of the British civil service. The Liberal Democrats have good lines of communication with public service employees and a membership base oriented towards services paid for out of tax revenue. He could make a speech setting out a vision of streamlined and more effective public service, where improvements in quality and productivity go hand in hand with better employee management. The government is putting together the ingredients of such a strategy. They include:
1. A stated intention to use staff freezes to cut the number of back office and overhead posts as people leave, avoiding compulsory redundancies whereever possible
2. A pay freeze for two years to reduce the need for service cuts, ameliorated by pay rises for the lowest paid.
3. A willingness to ask the employees how they would suggest hitting the new tigher budgets, involving staff in the evolution of their own service.
4. A preparedness to consider new models of service delivery, inviting employee buy- outs, contracting out to former staff and other solutions
5. A new rigour over purchasing costs to cut the cost of bought in items
6. Cancelllation of heavy reliance on consultants and temporary labour
These methods of cost reduction mean that the core staff of the public sector gets a much better deal than private sector staff did in many companies forced into rapid cost reductions to survive in the recession. The government can say to its staff that they will have chances of accelerated promotion in a world where little external recuritment is allowed. Their jobs will become more interesting as the role of the external consultant is rolled back. The emphasis will be on adopting new methods to ensure better quality and service delivery , making up for the msising decade when productivity stood still in many parts of the public sector.
Management should show quiet determination to get more for less. It could start by tightening up on absence from work, and by turning down many more requests for temporary labour and consultancy assistance to do tasks. Management should talk softly, seek cooperative working to drive change, but leave staff in no doubt one way or another we do have to do a lot more for less. There is no need to have strikes. Strikes are not a sign of successful machismo, but unfortunate diversions from the task of improvement. If managements end up with one they have to win it, but it’s better not to go there in the first place.