Dave Penman: Whitehall's middle managers tell our union they feel like an abandoned army

The FDA general secretary says it’s time to speak up for so-called middle managers, who set the tone for the vast majority of civil servants

By Dave Penman

12 Oct 2015

I write this column on the day Civil Service Live comes to an end for 2015. We’ve been with it all the way from Newcastle and Manchester, to Bristol, Edinburgh (for the first time) and London. Surely a venue in Wales next time, guys! A particular thrill for me was being able to eat my lunch sitting in the dear seats at Murrayfield – obviously enhanced by the assumption (at time of writing) that Scotland are still on course to win the World Cup.

I’m a big fan of CS Live, particularly of the events outside London. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the senior leaders in the service to engage with civil servants they wouldn’t normally be in touch with. I can’t help thinking: where else do the most senior leaders of an organisation open themselves up to questions from the workforce in the way that is almost routine now at CS Live? What’s clear as well is that it taps into a huge thirst among civil servants, at every level, to learn new skills, improve how they deliver services and at the same time build a career in the service.

That thirst to improve and progress is something that we’ve been aware of for some time. For the last few years we’ve been developing our learning offer to members and potential members. It’s proved to be a huge hit and is now a mainstream part of what the FDA offers. More recently we started working with professions and networks to offer opportunities to staff below Grade 7, our traditional boundary of membership.

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Again, we were overwhelmed by the demand and energy of the cadre. What was interesting as well is the response we got when we asked about being a “middle manager”, for want of a better phrase. Many in that group are operational mangers, delivering frontline services and managing large chunks of the network. There’s a real “squeezed middle” feeling you get when you talk to them and we even tested that phrase out at a session in the CS Live London event – it has real resonance with the group.

We use the term “squeezed middle” to describe the impact of an increased delegation of work and responsibility to middle managers, coupled with the increased pressure on them to performance-manage their own staff, often with systems that are unpopular and time-consuming. This is problematic, as across the public sector there is a growing expectation for middle managers to connect the strategic goals of their organisation to the tactical responsibilities of employees. The reality is that 50 to 70% of any workforce reports to a middle manager rather than a senior leader, so our managers at SEO and HEO levels set the tone for the vast majority of employees within the organisation.

They feel pressure from above to deliver strategic goals while receiving ever decreasing resources and pressure from below, as they are in the firing line for management decisions for large numbers of staff. Now all of this will chime with many reading this column at almost every level in the service, but the sense we get talking to this group is that they feel like an abandoned army and lack the distinct identity that comes at other levels within the service.

So that, among other reasons, is why the FDA launched a new section of the union in the summer called Keystone, aimed at the HEO/SEO cadre and equivalents. Not all are managers: just as management spans have grown, so the demands of specialist roles have increased in this group, which are often performing roles previously undertaken at Grade 7 level and above.

Keystone aims to encapsulate the best of the FDA – a strong, pragmatic union offering professional representation and a voice in the workplace – while having a distinct focus, staffing and organisation dedicated to the Keystone membership. A high-quality professional development offering – Keyskills – is integral to that offer, and it’s already supported nearly a thousand HEO and SEO staff with development opportunities. When we did some research with this group prior to launch, a development offer was as important to them as professional representation. What we aspire to deliver in the FDA is to be a union that’s there for its members at work;- support when you need it, help with your career, a collective voice on common issues and a strong advocate for public service.

Despite everything that’s been thrown at this group, what remains inspiring is that their passion for delivering quality public services shines through and you get that in spades talking to them at events like Civil Service Live. Again, I’m sure this resonates with many reading this who are at more senior levels in the service. That’s why, by creating a separate section of the union with its own identity, we can represent the issues that are distinct as well as those that are shared across the FDA’s membership.

So what is my abiding memory of CS Live? It’s got to be John Manzoni telling me he’d played at Murrayfield and came up against a giant of the Scottish game, David Sole. That’s when it became clear to him which career path he should choose. 

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