Dave Penman: Civil service could win 'worst pay in the public sector' award

The system for civil service pay has turned into both a farce and a disaster. The government must lift the 1% cap and take action to address the gap with the private sector


By Dave Penman

07 Dec 2017

I was recently invited to address a symposium on public sector pay, hosted by the University of Greenwich. My Google search suggested that a symposium was either “a conference or meeting to discuss a particular subject” or “a drinking party or convivial discussion, especially held in Ancient Greece”. I hoped for the latter, but planned for the former.

I do enjoy getting on my feet and holding forth. It’s kinda what got me to where I am. Preparation, however, isn’t. I like to have a play with PowerPoint, but my skills are definitely stuck in the 1990s. Simon, one of the FDA’s national officers, is a whizz though, and thankfully he responded to the ever-increasing volume of profanities emanating from our “quiet room”.

I was last up before the discussion with a panel of experts. It was like a competition for who had the worst pay system in the public sector. Even though I say so myself, I think I nailed it. I try to incorporate a theme to any presentation and this one was movies. The second slide was a movie theatre marquee with “Civil Service Pay – A DISASTER MOVIE”. Boom.


I’ve dealt with pay in the civil service since delegation began in the early 1990s. I got my first job in a union as a result, as we went from three bargaining agreements to almost 300 over four very intensive years. I’ve watched as dedicated HR professionals sought to use delegation as a way of tailoring their reward structures to the specific challenges they face. I’ve negotiated pay in the biggest government departments and the smallest specialised non-departmental public bodies. 

In the early years this was, at least, possible. Many employers simplified grading structures that were long overdue for reform. Mistakes were made, mostly benign, in lengthening pay ranges and eliminating progression, but it relied on sufficient funding being available to throw at different groups in different years. When money got tight, however, it fell apart.

In the early noughties, Labour loosened the purse strings for a few years and we managed to get some form of pay “system” back. These at least had some defined elements that staff could understand and rely on for more than one year. Soon though, the deft hand of the Treasury was felt. At first it was about quantum. Worried that public sector pay rises were outstripping the private sector, the civil service was a convenient way of sending a message. Quickly though, this became about control of policy and limiting costs. 

Delegation became a farce, and it still is. Occasionally a department can wheedle a little reform out of the system, and HR bods high-five themselves at having convinced the unconvincable to let go a little.

In the Senior Civil Service we had a system, driven by an evidence-bereft dogma on performance pay, that suppressed consolidated pay rises in favour of building a large bonus pot. Pay levels that were 50% behind the market were simply ignored, creating a two-tier workforce and leading to a situation in which external hires still have a 30% pay lead over internals. 

Pay ranges that are anywhere between £60,000 and £100,000 (that one drew an audible intake of breath) mean there is no concept of a rate for any job, particularly if you’re successful in an open competition where internal candidates are denied the advertised salary.

Both in the SCS and in delegated grades, unfairness and inequity are rampant. In HMRC we are pursuing dozens of equal pay cases, which are inherently complex and difficult to prosecute. But no one should believe that if we are unable to scale the high legislative bar, it is in any way a validation of the current system. A “dog’s breakfast” (cue image of a straight-to-DVD 2007 classic of the same name) is how I described it.

I like to end on a high note. What of the future now the pay cap has apparently been lifted? Will it be A New Hope or Back to the Future?

If it’s to be the former then we need stability, and a system that at least tries to eliminate the yawning gap with the market. Government needs to decide whether delegation is to have any meaning, or bite the bullet and centralise bargaining. The sacred cow of linking pay to performance needs to be slain by government. 

Equally, on our side, we have our own sacred cow to slay: with pay ranges so long, we should accept a rate for the job if it comes with a meaningful form of progression in much shorter pay ranges. Reward should be more than about control: it should support an employer’s workforce plan. With such enormous challenges facing the civil service, it’s a crime that there remains such a disconnect. 


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