A public sector that shows the way? Part 3

13 Apr

A personal viewpoint, written for the April 2017 issue of Your Voice, by Patrick, secondary school IT manager and Voice member (England). The views expressed are those of the author.

In my previous article (January 2017), I discussed how job evaluation under Single Status works and highlighted a number of problems. In this article, I will explain these in more detail.

The problem with dividing a central pay spine into a series of grades is that the spine itself will have a top and a bottom. There are only so many rungs on the ladder, so there can only be so many pay grades.

The issue there is that this creates an artificial ceiling, leading to a phenomenon I have dubbed ‘pay compression’. This is because almost all the employer’s job roles – bearing in mind we are talking about practically every kind of role under the sun, covering the vast majority of local government jobs (as well as all non-teaching school roles) below senior executive level – somehow have to fit within that structure.

The quality control mechanism for that match-up involves a process called ‘sore thumbing’, which is where jobs which seem to score too high or too low are ‘smoothed out’, often resulting in some semblance of a progression structure.

I will use my own specialist domain (IT) to illustrate this. For all secondary schools within a local authority that has, say, 12 pay grades, you might have the role of IT Technician evaluated at Grade 4, Senior IT Technician evaluated at Grade 6, and IT Manager evaluated at Grade 7. However, you will also have staff employed in IT support and management roles for the wider local authority, doing the same job for a much larger computer system than would be found in a single school. So, logically, those roles ought to be paid more to recognise their wider impact – we might have County IT Support Officers on Grade 7, Senior Officers on Grade 8 and IT Managers on Grade 10.

Pay ceiling

However, when there is a pay ceiling in the mix as well, that means you will end up with many, many roles where the pay has to remain low simply because it can’t realistically fit within the structure if it’s any higher.

Although we have accommodated the principle of structured progression, in practice there is a limit on how far this can go, especially when considering the impact it could have on roles of a similar nature but a wider scope. What if we decided the pay for the school roles is too low and we wanted to move them up? Their pay might then be ‘too close’ to that of the county officers, so we would have to move them up as well. If we were to do this too often with too many kinds of roles, we may find that we are running out of space on the pay spine – there is simply no more ‘room’ left to allow for appropriate differences in pay. Naturally, this can apply to other kinds of roles too, and pay for local authority school support staff is low primarily for these reasons.

‘Matching people to roles’ instead of ‘matching roles to people’

Combined with the fact that job descriptions are matched to a single grade and then stay there – plus are often years out of date – this means we will end up ‘matching people to roles’ instead of ‘matching roles to people’, which is (as any good recruiter will tell you) what we should be doing. Ultimately, then, we have low flexibility to recruit – and retain! – the best people, and low incentives for staff to excel at what they do. They are, after all, ‘stuck’ on their pay grade with little prospect of reward for excellence or innovation.

This does not stop many of us from trying our hardest regardless, but it does mean that when we recruit for these public sector roles, the pay is often unfavourably low in respect of roles that also exist in the private sector. The potential impact of this goes without saying, and it is perhaps behind the view of successive central governments that ‘the public sector simply isn’t good at innovating’.

At the moment, that may well even be true in some quarters… but it does not have to be, and in the next article, I will explore ways of shaping ‘a public sector that shows the way’, for local government in general and for schools in particular.

Close up of payslip

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