'Get paid less, work more and have your reputation trashed' isn't a great sell for the senior civil service

Competency-based pay could represent some light at the end of the tunnel, but it needs proper funding or it will be just another train

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By Dave Penman

18 Mar 2022

This year will bring the 44th report from the Senior Salaries Review Body, and for the last third of its existence, I’ve sat in front of its members saying basically the same thing. At the end of February, we went through the ritual again. I’m not being disrespectful, far from it. The review body does exactly what it is supposed to – including taking evidence from the unions and from government, who are invariably late while we move mountains to get our evidence in on time (and I’m sure our assistant general secretary Lucille Thirlby, who wrote our submission, lost a few weekends to it).

The SSRB also talks to civil servants and the Civil Service Commission. The point of the review bodies, rather than just straight bargaining on pay, is to bring evidence to bear and avoid conflict or politics getting in the way. As we see each year with MPs’ pay, the review body comes in for stick from almost everyone except the FDA. Every year, politicians find a reason to wear the hair shirt and say they’re annoyed at getting a pay rise and, of course, the usual suspects find any reason to suggest that the inhabitants of the House of Comics don’t deserve it. The FDA, usually as a lone voice, believes that independent review bodies should be left to get on with their job unencumbered. In many ways, the whole point of an independent body is to make difficult decisions. 

Similarly, there are few votes in awarding pay rises to senior civil servants; that’s why the review body was set up in the first place. Unfortunately, government after government have sought to emasculate it, restrict its remit or just point blank ignore it. So, we commissioned external research on comparable pay levels, principally because the government has repeatedly refused to share its research with us. See if you can guess why?

The facts are stark. SCS Pay Band 1 roles are typically between 10% and 20% behind the rest of the public sector, and are around 33% behind pay rates for comparable jobs in the private sector, rising to 40% if you include bonuses.

SCS Pay Band 2s are paid half what they could earn for comparable roles in the private sector, while at Pay Band 3, the total cash reward is about a quarter of what they could get in the private sector.

Of course, none of this is new. The government relies on the public sector ethos where talented people will stay because of the challenging and rewarding work they do. Most senior civil servants made choices long ago to work in the public sector when greater reward was on offer elsewhere.

You would think that a government that relies on its senior civil servants being committed, even when they could earn significantly more elsewhere, would be careful to ensure those people felt valued. It is worth reading the comments we get from senior civil servants (though I’m not sure many ministers do), which we publish as part of our evidence. It tells a tale of disillusionment. One who worked on the Covid response said they were leaving because of low pay and being “completely demoralised by the continuation of rhetoric aimed at hard working colleagues... I’m going to join another organisation that frankly pays a lot better and hopefully see a more respectful relationship with their employees”.

Our survey showed that a staggering 94% do not believe the pay system is fit for purpose. Is it any wonder that two thirds say there are recruitment and retention difficulties in their department, and increasingly tell a story of over reliance on consultants and contractors to fill roles?

Long hours with a refusal to offer any compensation, low comparable pay levels and the constant drip feed of the culture war from ministers. It’s hardly a surprise therefore that nearly two thirds say they are more inclined to look for a job outside the civil service than they were 12 months ago. It’s not really the big sell to all those people ministers want to bring in from the private sector to senior civil service roles: get paid less, work more and have your reputation trashed. At least it would fit on the side of a bus.

Much of this isn’t new, I’ve been banging on about it in each of those 15 years I’ve been giving evidence, as has the SSRB in its reports, to be fair. There might just be some light at the end of the tunnel with competency-based pay progression, if they can uncomplicate the system, get decent funding and work out how the rest of the pay system operates. That’s a lot of ifs and so there’s a lot at stake with CBP, which the government wants to roll out this year to inform pay decisions in 2023. It’s been the big promise over the last couple of years to resolve some of the main pay gripes. It’s taken too long to bring in and is still largely untested, but most significantly, it needs to be properly funded. If not, that light will turn out to be just another train coming. 

Dave Penman is the general secretary of the FDA union

Read the most recent articles written by Dave Penman - Low pay blights the Fast Stream. Our members have had enough

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