It is well known that public service staff are facing a crisis. Staff shortages are significant and have a serious impact on service users. The list is long: morale is very low, employers are not doing enough to make careers in the public service attractive to applicants and recruitment difficulties are also considerable.
These are the findings of Fit for the Future? Rethinking the public services workforce, a recent House of Lords Public Services Committee report.
The report warns that the current situation will only worsen, with demand for services growing faster than the working age population, and the public service has to provide the same or better services with less available labour.
While the challenge is daunting, the report sets out an action plan for the Government and argues that imaginative, creative and flexible solutions must be implemented to make careers in the public service attractive and ensure a sustainable workforce for the future.
As a first step, the Committee’s plan identified five factors on which it should focus:
Many public service workers have felt ‘intense pressure’ and experienced ‘suffering’ due to increased pressure and vacancies. Ultimately, this creates a vicious circle that affects the people who use these services. Discrimination is also a factor, as it remains at unacceptable levels and is a barrier to the recruitment and retention of talented staff. Public service staff cannot be sustainable unless staff experiences are broadly positive. The cultural problems that cause people to leave must be stopped.
In terms of ‘untapped potential, the Commission believes that empowering staff to make more decisions and prioritising preventative services would result in a more effective workforce capable of delivering more and better in the future. The potential of many staff to deliver services is largely untapped. There is a need to make the most of the workforce by empowering it and thinking imaginatively about where it could be deployed.
To address the serious difficulties in recruitment, the Committee looked at the ‘supply’ of careers in the civil service. It found that pay will continue to be a significant barrier to a sustainable workforce and looked at other ways to improve the offer. The report concludes that the supply of careers in the civil service should be made more attractive by fixing pensions and offering flexible working hours. In addition, the report stresses the need to re-brand public service careers and spread an attractive message.
Traditional routes into public service careers are often limiting and may not be the best way to develop the workforce needed for the future. Alternative pathways, such as apprenticeships and local talent pools, offer real potential to reach candidates, including those who may not be able to afford a degree. Steps need to be taken to create new accessible pathways and make good use of existing ones.
People now want careers with a broader portfolio, and the idea of a job for life with a good pension is no longer the ultimate goal. The public sector must adapt to support these changing preferences. The report calls for a change in mindset and concludes that public sector employers need to train to retain and rethink development to recognise and use skills more effectively in broad careers. The report also urges the Government to prioritise the development of training programmes to ensure that services work for users through meaningful consultation.
To achieve this plan, the report shares 10 long-term recommendations that the public sector should start implementing:
- Start with a strategic approach: Given the long-term demographic challenges and the likelihood of continued difficulties in recruiting sufficient staff, long-term thinking and strategic approaches to workforce planning are needed.
- Consider the role of data in strategy development: Improved workforce data is essential to map and understand where our workforce is, what skills it has, how to approach it and how to bring it together to deal with a pandemic or crisis.
- Harnessing the untapped potential of the workforce: Enabling staff, particularly frontline and lower level staff, to provide more services and identify needs to improve service delivery.
- Delegate decision-making: Be more flexible, and increasing decision-making at lower levels would improve outcomes for staff and service users. Staff should be allowed to work more imaginatively and creatively, moving away from traditional ways of thinking.
- Involve service users in staff and service planning: Involving service users, including in staff planning, would enable providers to better meet the needs of service users. Consultation should extend to people with protected characteristics and those who know their local communities.
- Remove barriers to co-designing services: Accessibility (local authorities do not always take into account the needs of service users when creating opportunities for engagement); financial barriers (a person with lived experience attending a policy meeting may receive little or no compensation for their time or expertise); structural barriers (there are structural barriers to introducing or increasing elements of co-design, such as the need to review or renegotiate employee contracts, including through trade unions, or legal barriers); cultural barriers.
- Integrating technology into workforce planning: The increasing role of technology in the planning, designing and delivery of public services was raised in many contributions to the survey.
- Be aware of the challenges associated with the increased use of innovative technologies: The increased use of technology in service delivery can lead to digital exclusion when one in ten people in the UK do not have access to the internet. And a significant proportion of the UK population lacks basic digital skills, including those in public service roles and increasingly in some marginalised communities.
- Prioritise more collaboration with preventative services and early intervention: Preventative services are principles of public service reform because they can build capacity in the workforce by detecting problems before they become too complex and help reduce deep and persistent inequalities and benefit service users.
- Improving engagement with the voluntary sector and social enterprises: It is important to work with voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) groups as they seek to develop strategies for public service workers. This collaboration should be fundamental to any reform of public services.