Garry Graham: As the Spending Review looms, civil service pay policy looks increasingly unsustainable

No employer in the private sector would see a five year pay freeze – followed by a 1% cap – as the route to success, argues the deputy general secretary of the Prospect union


By Garry Graham

23 Nov 2015

Five more years of austerity in our public services – where all the “quick wins” and “low hanging fruit” have already been banked or plucked – makes for a tough environment for those who devote their careers to working in the public interest.

All the more galling is the arbitrary approach being taken. With predicted spending cuts of 25-40%, it is truly amazing to hear public service leaders whisper relief that their organisation is likely to be at the “lower end” of planned cuts. This is at a time when the civil service is the smallest it has been since 1939.

Against that backdrop, some of the messages in the latest Civil Service People Survey will not come as a surprise. Almost a quarter of staff want to leave their organisation either immediately or within the next year – a figure which has risen steadily since 2009. And 75% believe that their pay and benefits compare poorly to people doing similar jobs in other organisations.


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Some on the ideological right will say “good”, or “they would say that wouldn’t they?” But anyone who has held a serious management job in either the public or private sector will look at these figures and start to worry.

There are those in government who laud the private sector and say they wish to emulate “best practice”. But the truth is no employer in the private sector would see a five year pay freeze, followed by a 1% cap through to 2020, as the route to success. 

What staff have experienced is not a sophisticated pay and reward strategy – it is a blunt instrument of macroeconomic policy delivered with ideological zeal. Pay is increasingly buoyant in the private sector – particularly for the types of specialists and managers that Prospect represents. Already there are signs across government of problems in retention, as well as recruitment. If the private sector increasingly talks of the “battle for talent” in STEM skills – the challenge for the public sector is going to become even greater.

There was a politician who once said “you cannot buck the market”. Those who think current government policy is sustainable are guilty of sophistry. An informed debate about the shape of our public services and how they can be effectively delivered has been completely absent. A government without specialist skills is both blind and impotent. At this time of tight finances it is more important than ever that we have evidence-based policy formulation, evaluation and delivery. Ensuring the civil service has the necessary skills to achieve this is crucial. 

There was once much talk of a smaller but better paid civil service. There is plenty of evidence for the former – with further cuts to come. But many have experienced real-terms pay cuts of up to 20% since 2010 while the pay of their private sector colleagues looks increasingly buoyant. This is simply unsustainable.

Long working hours have become endemic in many areas, against a backdrop of a toxic forced distribution performance management system. Getting "more from less" increasingly feels like a drunk driver, whose car has run out of petrol, repeatedly stamping on the accelerator. 

Read the most recent articles written by Garry Graham - Garry Graham: As the pay freeze ends, ministers must enact real reform

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