Now is the time for civil service and public service leaders to speak up on behalf of the staff and the organisations they lead. Sir James Bevan at the Environment Agency has thrown down the gauntlet, writing to the environment secretary to make clear the intolerable pressure staff are working under and the devastating impact that pay restraint is having on staff – as well as the ability of organisations to recruit and retain staff to deal with the challenges we face as a nation. Others must follow his lead.
Sir James highlights the fact that those covered by the government’s remit guidance are not only the poor relation to the private sector – but also the poorest of relations to the rest of the public sector. The publication of the review body reports this week showed this gap increasing - with increases ranging from 5-9% for teachers, police officers, nurses and others, whilst pay increases for civil servants have been pegged at between 2-3%.
Such is the brutality of government pay policy that ministers could not even bring themselves to agree the recommendations for the senior civil service for a modest increase of a 3%, choosing to slash it by a third. And this at a time when MPs were only too happy to agree to nod through the recommendation of their own review body – meaning that MPs will yet again get a higher pay increase than many of the staff who serve them.
The time for sotto voce conversations in the corridors of power is gone. It is the duty of senior public servants to speak truth to power and ensure ministers are held to account for the decisions they take. We can all think of examples where this has happened in the NHS, the military, and the police. In the civil service, those in senior positions have too long been silent whilst witnessing long term damage being done.
If senior officials in the Cabinet Office cannot even persuade ministers of the wisdom and probity of meeting with unions against the backdrop of the 91,000 job loss announcement, you have to wonder what grip they have at all.
So often I meet officials who are more than quietly appalled about what they witness. The announcement that one in five civil servants are to lose their jobs via the front page of the Daily Mail and no detail underpinning it? A government oblivious to the impact of inflation on its own staff? From the PM down, ministers have a tenuous grasp on facts, detail and reality on the ground. Leadership candidates are making endless promises of tax cuts and the need for a smaller state, but offer no articulation of what it is that government should stop doing. And when things go wrong, ministers no longer take responsibility and expect officials to take the fall.
"From the PM down, ministers have a tenuous grasp on facts, detail and reality on the ground. Leadership candidates are promise tax cuts, but offer no articulation of what government should stop doing"
Civil servants I have spoken with were aghast at what the Sue Gray report revealed, with senior people being either wilfully oblivious or complicit in what was going on at No.10. It is symptomatic of a wider malaise and blurring of lines which would have been unthinkable in times past.
Staff deserve credit for the valuable contribution they make and they deserve leaders who will speak up on their behalf, championing what their organisation does and determined to ensure their staff are dealt with and rewarded fairly. Staff will be looking to the letter of Sir James and asking what their leaders are going to do. Will it be to step up to the plate – or yet another meek shrug of the shoulders and mealy-mouthed explanation about how difficult things are?
Sir James's letter has broken the spell of silence. Civil service leaders need to know that the eyes of staff will be on them, waiting to see if they are leaders worthy of the name or simply administrators. One leader has stepped up to meet the moment – others now have the easier job of adding their voice to the chorus.
Garry Graham is deputy general secretary of Prospect