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Public sector must act to avoid the disengagement and low morale the threat of redundancy brings

A recent report, Fraud in the Public Sector, from accountants PwC, warns that public sector fraud in the UK is soaring. Given what we know about the state of public finances and the need for drastic budget cuts, the fact that money is being pilfered by staff will be a matter of extreme concern for public-sector managers, and for us all.

Should we be surprised by the news? It has long been understood that a disengaged workforce, which no longer feels aligned to, or a meaningful participant in, its employer’s enterprise, is far more likely to act in ways that are detrimental to the employer, including stealing from the business (whether petty pilfering or more sophisticated fraud).  If staff resent an employer or even feel ambivalent towards it, they are more likely to give in to the temptation to steal. In contrast, if staff feel nothing but goodwill, pride and enthusiasm towards their employer, they are far less likely to act to its detriment.

The public-sector picture has changed remarkably since we published our State of HR survey earlier this year. The survey reported that the public sector was yet to enter recession, while some of the private sector was still mired in the depths of the downturn.

The General Election has changed this picture significantly. The election was fought on two main economic arguments – how much to cut public spending and how quickly. While the rest of us conducted clever conversations about the pros and cons of the different parties’ positions, for many public-sector employees this was about the stark reality of knowing that they could soon lose their livelihoods.

General elections always involve a period of inertia in the public sector as the old regime winds down its programme. There is the self-imposed civil service period of purdah covering the campaign, during which the incumbent government is prohibited from announcing new initiatives and then there will often be a period after the election where the new regime gets up to speed. That was obviously exacerbated this year by the negotiations over forming a coalition government and what policies would be traded to come up with a workable government programme.  Even now, although government departments have been told to plan for cuts of 25% or even 40%, the detail of how, how much, and from where the cuts will come is still some months away. This leaves the public-sector workforce in a state of inertia, and hanging on under the threat of redundancy.

If employers have to make redundancies, the generally accepted wisdom is to ‘get on with it’, as the longer employees are left working under the threat of cuts, the worse the effect on morale and engagement will be. Unfortunately, for the public sector, this has not been possible.

Public-sector employees are left working under the enormous fear of job loss and uncertainty about programmes and budgets, with the comfort of a generous enhanced redundancy scheme now also under threat. One could not find a surer way to damage employee engagement. 

So the effects of disengagement, such as fraud, should hardly come as a surprise. While it is generally accepted that cuts, although difficult, are unavoidable in the current climate, public- sector managers need to focus more than ever on the need to maintain employee engagement.

The State of HR survey identified a number of initiatives that private-sector employers were utilising to boost engagement and which, while not necessarily proven to have direct effect, were nonetheless associated with higher levels of engagement. They might prove useful initiatives for public-sector managers to adopt and include:

  • More effective leadership and management of staff
  • Greater fairness in organisational procedures
  • Improved learning and development opportunities
  • Enhanced career development opportunities
  • More equitable reward systems
  • Greater employee participation in decision-making
  • Better job design
  • Developing better relations with line managers

Not all of these initiatives may be possible in the public sector at the present time – career development, for example, may be impossibility with the threat of job loss looming for so many.

If the public sector is to emerge from the current situation with the energy and engagement necessary to deliver increasingly demanding programmes for change with decreasing workforce resources, a sustained and meaningful focus on employee engagement must be a priority. There are clear lessons that can be learned from the private sector, which has recently had to deal with the pain of disengagement.

Richard Martin is a partner and head of the employment team at law firm Speechly Bircham