The Department for Work and Pensions has seen a big rise in staff satisfaction with pay and benefits after it struck a deal with the Treasury to boost salaries in exchange for more flexibility on working hours.
The latest Civil Service People Survey shows that there has been a record 11-point leap in engagement scores on pay and benefits at the Department for Work and Pensions over the last year, rising from 29% in 2015's study to 40% this year.
That puts satisfaction with pay and benefits at DWP well above the civil service average, and at its highest-recorded level at the department.
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The engagement score for pay at the DWP is now seven points ahead of its 2009 level, logged before a public sector-wide pay freeze was imposed by the Treasury in 2010. Since that freeze was lifted in 2012, annual pay rises for officials have been capped at just 1%, and engagement scores at DWP have plunged as low as 22%.
But the DWP made what it called a "persuasive argument" at last year's government-wide Spending Review, which has allowed it to bust the Treasury's 1% pay cap and overhaul its pay structures. The move has been given a cautious welcome by civil service trades unions.
The so-called "Employee Deal" drawn up by the DWP applies to staff at the lower grades of the organisation, from Administrative Assistant through to Higher Executive Officer level. Many of those staff work in DWP contact centres, or in its JobCentre Plus network.
The deal will see some staff receive pay rises totaling 20% over the next four years, with the highest increases targeted at officials on the lowest pay rates. According to an internal DWP briefing document, no official who opts into the deal, and whose performance is rated as satisfactory, will receive "less than 1.1% each year over four years".
"We very much welcome the fact that they've gone out and done this, and done something that is right both for those staff and for the customer" – Rob O'Neill, FDA Union
In exchange, however, all staff signing up to the agreement are expected to be available for work between 8am until 8pm, including on Saturdays, and unions have said they are keeping a close eye on whether the new terms are being adhered to. The deal should not mean longer working hours overall for staff, but more flexibility around when they can be deployed.
Rob O'Neill, assistant general secretary of the FDA union, told CSW the contract shake-up allowed DWP to keep its contact centres open over a longer period, meaning staff were "available to the public on a more flexible basis".
The move has also been partly motivated, O'Neill said, by a belief that the DWP needed to better align its pay rates with those at HM Revenue and Customs – a similarly-sized civil service employer with a big chunk of its staff carrying out customer service roles.
"We think DWP have done really well in being able to make a case to the Treasury and to get agreement to be able to deliver this deal," the FDA representative said.
"We very much welcome the fact that they've gone out and done this, and done something that is right both for those staff and for the customers, for the public who depend on DWP's services."
"We recommended acceptance because after years of pay restraint we wanted DWP to start putting some money back into people's pockets" – Public and Commercial Services Union
A spokesperson for the PCS union – the predominant union in the grades affected by the DWP pay deal, and one with a reputation for taking a tough stance in talks with employers – meanwhile explained why it had chosen to back the department's offer.
"Negotiations around the pay deal were tough and, while the final offer didn't give us everything we would have wanted, we recommended acceptance because after years of pay restraint we wanted DWP to start putting some money back into people's pockets," the spokesperson said.
"This was particularly important in DWP as it's traditionally been poor in terms of pay."
But the PCS spokesperson said the changes to terms and conditions that the Treasury had insisted upon "weren't of our choosing" and said it was "fair to say" they had not been met "with universal approval from staff".
The union also vowed to monitor whether limits around working hours were being respected as the deal beds in.
"We're really disappointed that people are already reporting to us breaches of these terms, including a heavy-handed approach to working hours, particularly at the end of the day," they added.
"We're taking this up with the DWP and advising our members of their rights within the collective agreement we reached."
"More to be done"
The FDA's O'Neill, meanwhile, said there was "more work to be done" to improve the pay situation at the DWP, including ensuring staff higher up the chain, at Higher Executive Officer-level and above, saw increases after years of pay restraint.
"We've got members in those grades, some of whom haven't had a payrise for years," the union's assistant general secretary said.
"All of them have been affected by the 1% pay cap," he added. "But in some of those grades – the Senior Civil Service would be a good example – they've been putting the money into staff at the lower end of the scales to bring them up, while some people further up the scales have been sitting there with no payrise for five or six years.
"If we can push on with aligning more with market rates at the higher grades, those engagement scores will go up even more" – Rob O'Neill, FDA union
"So we would say well done DWP for what you've done, we supported that deal. But there's more work to be done, and if we can push on with aligning more with market rates at the higher grades, those engagement scores will go up even more."
O'Neill also pointed out that the Treasury has been less willing to grant the same pay flexibility to other, smaller departments, saying he understood that ten organisations had made a similar case to the finance ministry, with only DWP and Her Majesty's Courts Service winning some degree of freedom.
And, despite the relatively positive reaction to the deal from unions, there are clear caveats to the offer – including an annual increase of just 0.25% for staff who do not sign up, and a link to the civil service's controversial performance management regime.
According to the internal DWP briefing document, officials who have been given a "must improve" marking in their annual performance review are not eligible for either a consolidated pay increase or a bonus.
PCS believes the rate of increase promised to civil servants who opt out of the deal is too low, while all three of the main Whitehall unions – PCS, the FDA and Prospect – have long expressed concern about the operation of the performance management system.
The DWP had yet to respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.