Nineteen Years in Public Service

Nineteen years ago I started work, at Her Majesty‘s pleasure according to my job offer letter, as an Executive Officer with the Department of the Environment. I was a graduate entrant on the DOE’s Management Development Programme and was paid an annual salary of £12,200, including London Weighting. That was quite good money at the time, the average graduate starting salary was £10,000 and in today’s terms it would be about double that (using the Retail Prices Index (RPI) to update it). The expectations that I had were of relatively rapid promotion to Higher Executive Officer (HEO) after about 3 years and then skipping past Senior Executive Officer (SEO) straight to Grade 7 in about five years after getting to HEO. I also got told that I would have compulsory retirement at the age of 60 and that I would probably have just under half-pay at that point (pension being measured by service in years divided by 80, and graduates won’t manage a full 40 years).

I deliberately chose to work in the public sector, and I have chosen to remain there at several points in my career when I’ve been dis-satisfied with how things were going (including right now). That choice has most to do with wanting to do things that might make the world a better place (even if only in small ways) rather than trying to make profits for others. In the course of my career I’ve worked in a wide range of posts, and all of them have one thing in common, they helped improve things for people. Some posts reduced the cost of government administration, so reducing the burden on tax payers (I’ve saved tens of millions in ongoing costs through efficiency improvements over the years, in my current posting there are £30m in annual ongoing savings as a direct result of the work of the team I lead). I’ve also worked on energy efficiency, climate change, fire & rescue service improvement, access to the countryside, zoo licensing, setting up the Greater London Authority (and licensing London minicabs) and lots of other things that currently lie with the Department for Communities and Local Government (which is where most of what was DOE now exists) or the Department for Transport (from the days when they were combined in DETR and I worked for every part of DETR as an internal consultant).

Anyway, I’m in the public sector out of choice. I have skills that the private sector could (and does) use. I’m a generalist senior manager, I am an excellent leader and have also specialised in operational efficiency and using the minimum of resources to meet policy objectives. I’ve read through the job adverts in the Telegrap, the Times and the Guardian. Most recently I’ve been leading a team of (very successful) business analysts.  I know that in the private sector I could earn more than I do now, even allowing for the employer contribution to my pension. I also know how much it would cost to accrue a pension pot that would give me similar benefits that I will get from my current pension scheme. Even allowing for that, I could still earn more in the private sector.

So I’m here out of choice, not because anyone is forcing me to work here, or because I only have skills specific to one sector. That makes my negotiating position quite weak, I want to do this work, I’m not in it for the money. That said, the money is pretty good, and my standard of living is predicated on what I have been earning. In particular my house (which is in a relatively cheap area for the South East of England) is sized according to what I could afford. Since the current government has come to office my pay has gone down in cash terms because they’ve cancelled the performance related bonuses (and I was in the top performing group in 2009 & 2010). In cash terms I’ve taken about a 5% pay cut (compared to 2009, my highest earnings year). In real terms it is worse than that.

However I can see that there is a need to save money in the public sector, and I can live with the pay freeze, I can also live to some extent with further pension reform. This isn’t the first time in my service that the pension has been changed, it has happened twice already. However where I disagree is how it is being done. The negotiation is conspicuous by its absence, and there is a lot of politically motivated posturing attacking the very people that the politicians expect to carry out their wishes. People who are not allowed to make political points (I’m politically restricted and cannot even belong to a political party because I am here to support Ministers regardless of party affiliation and need to be seen to be politically impartial). Let’s face it, if the issue was about saving money then there are many other ways to go about it, it the issue is about unaffordable pension costs then why doesn’t the evidence support that? And why are those pensions with funds with surpluses in them being targeted for increased contributions, longer working and lesser benefits?

If the government really want to come to an agreement then they need to talk to the unions, and from what my union (FDA – the senior managers union that has never been on strike in its history, until today) tells me there hasn’t been any meaningful consultation.

Also the pay freeze, followed by a 1% cap on pay rises, makes the negotiation a mockery, I’ll be taking a 1-2% cash pay cut (more in real terms) over the next four years. What the government should be controlling is total paybill size, not individual pay. That would reduce the cost to the Exchequer and also allow flexibility in negotiations for solutions to keep within the resource targets. For example, my organisation employs about 3,200 full-time equivalents (several hundred fewer than in 2009) and as a result of the efficiency gains (mostly identified by my team) we are running a net surplus of about £20m a year and have moved to being fee income supported (where before we spent about £50m+ of taxpayer’s money on top of the fees). We could afford to give everyone a 5% (RPI) pay rise to keep cost of living sorted out (and mitigate the extra pension contributions) and also reduce our fees by 4%, so everyone would be happier. However the Government won’t let us do anything sensible like that.

So like the rest of the public sector, I’m a little miffed, but perhaps not for the reasons that the news reports.

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