Is greater professional autonomy the secret to a happy civil service?

Whitehall's annual people survey provides a moment of catharsis – but, Jane Dudman wonders, is it asking the wrong questions?

By Jane Dudman

29 Nov 2016

I know little of Sir Jeremy Heywood’s taste in music, so who knows whether the head of the civil service hums Bobby McFerrin to himself as he roams the corridors of No10 and the Cabinet Office. But the US jazz singer and composer’s most famous exhortation – “don’t worry, be happy” – is certainly something the cabinet secretary is taking seriously on behalf of his 420,000 civil servants.

On the face of it, there’s little to make Heywood happy and plenty for him to worry about in this year’s civil service people survey. For a start, despite the cabinet secretary’s exhortation for more civil servants to fill in the survey, the level of response this year has stayed stubbornly at 65%, the same as last year. Mind you, that still means the survey has heard from more than 279,000 people – a number of responses most internal polls would kill to get. But the findings themselves are troubling, as Heywood has acknowledged.

Despite overall levels of staff engagement with their work going up slightly, to 59%, the survey shows that more civil servants than ever feel they have been bullied or discriminated against and more staff than ever before also feel their workload is unacceptable. Heywood has urged civil service leaders to work harder on rooting out bullying and discrimination. That’s something concrete that departments can tackle. But there’s much that is well beyond the control of either Heywood or permanent secretaries, including the complexity of implementing the UK’s Brexit arrangements, and the continuing, relentless pressure to cut budgets in the face of a poor economic outlook.

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The UK survey’s findings are mirrored in a report published this month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the state of civil services in the Paris-based organisation’s 35 member countries. Since 2008, civil service pay has been cut and/or frozen in three quarters of the 35 OECD member countries. Investment in civil service training has been cut in 62% of those countries.

The result, says the report, is greater “job intensity” and higher workplace stress, a decrease in employees’ trust in their organisation and their leaders, lower job satisfaction and a decrease in workplace commitment. The OECD itself expresses some surprise that this litany of grimness has not led to greater corruption or inappropriate use of resources. What little faith the OECD has in civil servants!  It concludes that public service ethos and values play an important role in governing behaviour – something pretty much any public servant could have told the organisation for free. 

So what can be done? The OECD says improving engagement requires good two-way communication. That’s yet another statement of the blinking obvious, but one with which Heywood will no doubt agree, as he and his cadre of civil service leaders attempt to tackle the issues highlighted in the UK survey – discontent over pay being another major cause of dissatisfaction.

But maybe it’s time to take a step back and ask just how much much point there really is in staff surveys, even ones as big as this. While journalists may love getting the statistics, let us consider a different tack. I’m prepared to be proved wrong about this, but I suspect that few UK civil servants will have heard of Alexander Kjerulf, the chief happiness officer at consultancy Woohoo Inc, who claims to have spent 30 years thinking about what makes people happy at work. Kjerfulk believes that job satisfaction surveys are, by and large, a waste of time: they measure the wrong things, they are done too rarely, and, above all, people don’t feel their organisation acts on the findings.

That underlines the necessity for action not only be be taken in response to this year’s survey, but to be clearly seen to be happening. The question is, what can be done, given the prevailing economic situation? One thing not to do, counter-intuitively, is to enforce clearer procedures and standards. That’s tempting, of course, particularly in an organisation like the civil service that thrives on frameworks.

But Oliver Burkeman, the New York based author of The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking, points out that one of the reasons people experience low morale is because they work in organisations that permit “zero autonomy”. The answer isn’t to have more rules but to leave people free to break some of them. That’s much harder to implement, but could be helpful. More helpful, perhaps, than filling in an annual survey that makes civil servants focus on their grievances.

As Burkeman has also pointed out, objecting to something you can’t control may bring a “moment of catharsis” but in the end makes things worse, by increasing the attention you bring to the problem, which makes it more intrusive. Or to put it another way, as former government policy minister Oliver Letwin did in his CSW recent interview: “Because of the vast complexity of the machine, it’s incredibly difficult to focus efficiently on each bit of it to be sure that it hasn’t gone – in some mysterious and unobserved way – wonky.” For Letwin, that was an argument for greater ministerial focus on targets; for many civil servants, it’s an argument that could bolster a call for greater professional autonomy, in the pursuit of efficiency and, yes, happiness.

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