Sunday, 20 May 2012
If its a day ending in Y, then its time to attack the civil service again...
Oh good, its been at least a few days since the civil service was last attacked for having the audacity to exist and employ people, so it was probably time for another article to make out that the Civil Servant is the root of all evil. While the author accepts that the Civil Service is never going to win any prizes for being a popular organisation, the level of hatred that the media attempt to generate against it is starting to border on the obscene. If the media were to conduct similar levels of attacks on religious or ethnic groups as they do on the civil service, then one could almost foresee prosecutions occurring.
The current criticism stems from news that the civil service operates a flexible working system. This has been portrayed in the media (or rather the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph) as something which permits Whitehall Civil Servants 36 days extra leave per year through working a nine day fortnight system. There is apparently no auditing of this system and its open for exploitation and abuse.If one is to believe the ‘sources’ (assuming they aren’t made up in true tabloid fashion), then apparently all of Whitehall is at it, and most departments are a ghost town on Fridays.
Lets briefly consider what it is that the fuss is all about. At its most simple Civil Servants are employed to work a fixed number of hours per week – usually 36 in London (7hrs 12 per day, plus lunch). Most departments operate a ‘core hours’ scheme whereby workers are expected to be in between 10-4pm and work as appropriate to make up the time.
The nine day fortnight scheme, or TOIL isn’t some kind of random system where employees arbitrarily decide they wish to take time off every two weeks. It’s a contractual change to your working hours, and subject to supervision and approval. If you are found to abuse the system then you can expect gross misconduct charges and dismissal from the civil service. The scheme is not something that most Civil Servants take part in – in the last ten years, this author has met precisely two Civil Servants working the nine day fortnight scheme.
The flexible working system merely tries to offer staff the ability to work a more flexible routine which reflects their personal circumstances. It isn’t an automatic right, and it would only be given if changing working patterns doesn’t impact on the role of the individual or their team. It doesn’t mean staff work any less time, and it doesn’t mean that they are skiving off. Often the system helps as it means staff are available to provide cover later when needed, and can stand down when there is no work to do.
In reality though most staff are so busy that they never get the time to take their TOIL and work for free far in excess of what is expected. The authors role requires him to regularly work late into the evenings, and he often has 2-3 days’ worth of excess TOIL which is lost, as there is just too much work to do. People may have accrued TOIL, but they certainly don’t often get to take it.
The idea that staff are somehow getting a magical 36 days of extra leave per year is just plain rubbish. Staff are working exactly the same hours as before, doing exactly the same job, and merely doing it for slightly different working patterns. No one attacks shift workers for working odd patterns. No one attacks people who do a 36 hour 9-5pm five day week, so why is it so wrong to try to offer flexible working?
The reality is that the civil service is not some plush job where people have an easy life and do little work. Most people in the Civil Service are hardworking individuals, who genuinely take pride in what they do, and who are getting utterly fed up of the constant attacks on their role and existence. It is incredibly dispiriting to have to read the sort of attacks day in, day out from press organisations who have decided that people with the audacity to work in public service are leeches who must be chastised. Yet the same organisations attacking the Civil Service, and who demand mass firings (and judging from the comments online, some readers expect mass firing squads) of Civil Servants are the same ones who criticise it when things go wrong.
Right now thousands of Civil Servants are applying to leave on early redundancy terms. In the MOD, 40% of all Civil Servants are in the process of losing their jobs. Despite this, the queue to get out is huge. The MOD was overwhelmed with applicants to get on the early release scheme last year, and it is likely that the same will happen again. People are fed up with being made to feel scapegoats for decisions in which they had no say, no part and no role. Today the Sunday Telegraph has reported that there is likely to be real concern at the loss of skills in the Mod through the redundancy scheme (LINK HERE). The reality appears to be dawning that if you attack the MOD Civil Service, blame them for all the mistakes in the military, demand mass sackings and downsizing, then you are going to lose core skills. There is no large department of Administrative Affairs to sack for the MOD. There is no office full of bean counters who can be lost. The reality is that where people go, they are taking with them niche skills, experience and future potential that cannot be easily replaced. By all means attack the civil service, but don’t be surprised to discover that in doing so, you are, in a small way, ultimately helping to undermine UK security.
It’s entirely appropriate to attack Civil Servants where genuine abuses or mistakes have occurred. People that have done this should be named, shamed and fired. But this is a tiny percentage of overall public sector workers. Most people try to do the best they can do with declining budgets, with unclear guidance, and they are trying to implement politically driven changes, and then expected to carry the can for the politicians when things don’t go to plan.
One theme that this author has tried to put across is that it’s extremely depressing to try to work in an organisation where 40% of staff are being made redundant, where pensions are being slashed, where budgets are being cut, and where pay has been frozen for years and will continue to do so. It is depressing to be made out to be the reason everything has gone wrong in society, and that it is all the Civil Servants fault. It is depressing to be blamed and told that I should be hung in front of my family (as one particularly charming Telegraph poster put yesterday) for suggesting that most Civil Servants are normal people trying to do the best we can.
The irony is of course that the organisation most determined to do the Civil Service down is also one of the most hypocritical out there. The author was discussing the Telegraph article last night with a social acquaintance of his (a reasonably well known national journalist). They spent a lot of time strongly attacking the Civil Service, and suggesting that all public servants are feckless, lazy and workshy and don’t deserve to have any form of flexible working. They then went on to complain, apparently without irony, about their new bed not having a headboard, making it hard for them to work in bed. Nice to see that the Fourth Estate doesn’t see fit practise what it preaches.