Civil service pay reform could be simple… if politicians were brave enough to fund it
As the pay cap is being lifted for other parts of the public sector, SCS pay reform needs ambition and commitment, not aspirational blather
This year marks a milestone for me. A quarter of a century ago, I began negotiating pay in the civil service. Where did that fresh-faced, slim(mer) enthusiastic young fella-me-lad go? If you were to ask a five-year-old to draw a trade union general secretary then they would probably come up with something that looks like me. Because I wasn’t quite cliché enough, I’ve since added a greyish beard and ditched my glasses.
I’ve negotiated allowances for keeping shotguns at home, premises for staying overnight in a lighthouse unfit for human habitation, shift payments – and more performance-related pay structures and machinery of government mergers than any sane man can be expected to remember. And what have I learned? Two things, really.
First, pay is actually quite simple, and second, to be wary, nae, downright suspicious of any proposal that contains the sentence: “In future, we would want to create a sustainable way to enable movement through the pay scales based on growth in competence through development in role.”
That phrase appears in the government’s 2018 evidence to the Senior Salaries Review Body for SCS pay. It tells me two things.
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First, that they don’t have any money. Forget the lifting of the pay cap for the SCS. No politician has the courage to accept that the most senior roles in government are in urgent need of pay reform that will actually cost something. So it’s still 1% for the foreseeable future.
Second, it shows that they don’t know what to do about the first problem. We can agree with some of the government’s analysis of what is wrong with the current SCS pay arrangements. Sure, they skip conveniently over the huge disparity with external pay markets for all grades and professions and refuse to share with us the analysis of relative pay levels because, frankly, it’s become embarrassing. In general, however, they paint a picture that everyone will recognise. Promotion or, increasingly, movement between departments is seen as the only way to get a pay rise; the link between pay and performance is inconsistent; and the system does not follow a rational structure. I actually quite like that last one.
So how does that lead to the “sustainable blah blah growth in competence blah blah”? Well it’s all a bit chicken-and-egg. Pay reform, particularly the substantial reform needed for the SCS, is inevitably going to cost. By the government’s own estimate, a quarter of the SCS will be impacted by raising the minima to £70,000, a figure that will still leave many SCS managers being paid less than the staff they manage. Yet that £70k figure is just an aspiration to be implemented over three years.
“This is what happens when you try to do pay reform with no money – you try to solve one problem but you end up creating another”
That means a quarter of the SCS may get to the minimum of the new pay range in the next three years – or they may not. It means a pay range where the maximum reduces from £116k to £95k, and that is set to have no meaningful mechanism to move from the £70k to £95k. The chances are, you’ll be stuck at whatever part of the range you’re on – as you have been for the past decade.
The proposals also mean that pay rises negotiated as part of departmental moves will be banned, and, if you’re successful in an open competition, you won’t get the starting rate being advertised for external hires. Oh, and for good measure, those who happen to earn more than £95k now can forget getting any consolidated rise in the foreseeable future.
I’ve done countless deals that have involved restructuring long pay ranges, but this usually involves a commitment to how the new lower max can actually be achieved, as well as some protection for those above the new max. Literally some quid for the pro quo.
This is what happens when you try to do pay reform with no money. You try to solve one problem but you end up creating another. We know that the Cabinet Office is trying to make bricks without straw, but this year, the year that the pay cap is supposed to be lifted, the year when local government staff are being offered 5.6% over two years and the NHS negotiations are likely to produce a similar settlement, is the year in which ambition and clear commitments are required.
“Keep it simple” is our message, and it’s at the heart of our evidence to the SSRB. The SCS needs a fair salary range that reflects, to some degree, the market and avoids the importing of large pay differentials and inequities from outside. It needs reasonable commitments on pay progression. It needs a performance management system that has the confidence of staff – pie in the sky, I know – and commitments on funding. With a clear vision, a fair system can be implemented over time. But that means no more blah blah blah.
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