Lucille Thirlby: the SCS needs more than words on pay reform

Ministers know what is required to fix churn but the pace of change is beyond glacial, argues the FDA's assistant general secretary
Ministers know the answers: chancellor Rishi Sunak PA

Immersing myself in our evidence to the Senior Salaries Review Body to support the case for improved pay arrangements for the Senior Civil Service is not just an annual event at the FDA. We are frequently contacted by members about the impact of the lack of bold decisions by ministers to grasp the nettle and invest in senior leaders. 

Those impacts relate to systemic failures in the pay and reward mechanism for the SCS going back almost two decades. Then there’s 10 years of pay freezes and a lack of any meaningful pay increases over the last two years, no pay progression, and SCS managing people paid way more than themselves. Not to mention the lack of transparency on decisions about reward, eye-watering annual tax-allowance bills for pension savings, reduced morale as a result of ministerial conduct and excessive working hours. The list is endless. 

Yet despite the rainforest volumes of evidence describing the state of the system and the solutions to SCS pay proposed by the SSRB, there has been very little tangible progress. Two years ago, I described the pace of change as glacial, but today I think a better gauge of speed would be the rotation of Venus – the only planet in the solar system where a day lasts longer than a year.

Nowhere else in the public or private sector would senior leaders and managers be paid less than the people they manage. The FDA commissioned independent evidence from Income Data Research which shows that the SCS pay bands are between 10% and 15% behind at the median/midpoint basic salary for comparable roles in other major parts of the public sector.

The private-sector services comparison is even more stark. At best, SCS pay bands are around two-thirds of those found in private services, and at the most senior levels they are only half that of their private-sector comparators.

Ministers have a highly-motivated, adaptable and diligent SCS who are visibly providing effective senior leadership and genuine expertise. The current system effectively incentivises churn due to the lack of progression pay (or indeed any other meaningful means of maintaining real-terms earning power, never mind increase it).

This was identified by the government in 2017, yet another year goes by without them finding the resources necessary to enable tangible change. They know the problem, they know the solution, but they lack the political ambition to solve it. Instead, we’ll have minister after minister complaining about churn and lack of continuity despite the solution being in their own hands.

Meanwhile we have employers within the civil service being creative, listening to their staff and delivering real change for the future.

HM Revenue and Customs' groundbreaking pay deal shows an employer who recognises the quiet revolution in working practices that has taken place during the pandemic and that working from home at least part of the week is here to stay, ensuring a contractual right to work from home two days a week. It also shows an employer who recognises the culture of excessive unpaid hours and offers their employees guaranteed days off as a result of hours worked. The deal is also evidence of an employer who enables pay progression. Any of these initiatives could and should apply to the SCS, so why is that not being done? 

In our evidence, the FDA therefore called on the SSRB to recommend that the government sets a pay bill increase for 2021, urgently implements pay progression with an updated SCS pay framework, delivers urgent changes to performance management processes and outcomes, and finally tackles excessive uncompensated working hours and workload.

Lucille Thirlby is assistant general secretary of the FDA

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