A public sector that shows the way? Part 5

2 Nov

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

At my previous school, we employed an apprentice.  I recall the advisor from the training firm we used commenting – quite out of the blue – that he loved placing new apprentices in the public sector.  When I asked why, he said it was because all the understanding and best practice was already in place here.  He had placed apprentices in some private sector firms whose leaders did not even know what a DBS check was!

But these articles are not intended to lambast the business world – business drives our productivity, and I cannot imagine any private business taking an active decision to hogtie itself in the way we have managed to do with Single Status.  So, in this article, I will explore some ways of altering our structures to unlock the potential that exists here, and free us up to show off our own examples of best practice to the wider world.

The initial question would seem to be: should Single Status be reformed to introduce greater dynamism, thereby solving the three problems of recruitment, retention and reward that I have highlighted previously?  Or should we go all the way, throw out the whole thing and replace it with something else?  This is, perhaps, a question for greater minds to ponder, so I will lay out options for doing it either way.

Reforming Single Status

If we were to reform Single Status, we should of course retain the notion of detailed job descriptions, but we should abandon the current JDQ style of arriving at them.  The trouble with a Job Description Questionnaire as the be-all-and-end-all of the content is that you can only answer the questions that have been asked, which may not fully satisfy the nuances of some roles. 

We should also revamp the current scoring matrix approach – it makes no sense that I was able to secure a higher pay grade (after two appeals!) simply by pointing out that my job required the ability to type with both accuracy and speed.  That was enough to send my Physical Skills evaluation up from a 2 to a 3, which, as my job was already scored at the highest end of pay grade, moved me on to the next one.  Very nice for me, of course, but it does highlight the ridiculousness of operating within rigid technicalities at all times.

We should adopt a model of continual review for all job specs, perhaps over a three-year cycle.  This would involve randomly-selected staff from each role being invited to spend, say, a morning with a job evaluation team, helping them to understand what the role actually involves in practice, what its impact is on the organisation and where the particular stress points are.  Individual departments and services would be required to honour these ‘invitations’ – it could be like jury duty. 

I am reliably informed that this idea is not new – similar approaches are already being taken at companies around the world.  It helps to raise the profile and awareness of all colleagues’ roles within job evaluation and other human resources teams, helping us all to empathise with each other and work together more effectively.

Finally, we should take a leaf from the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document and learn from the teaching world.  Teachers are able to receive additional salary bonuses for taking on new responsibilities/accountabilities, known as TLRs.  Considering the particular risk of ‘responsibility creep’ under the present system, this would be an incredibly sensible model to adopt for staff all across local government.

It would also be compatible with equal pay legislation; there would be very clear reasons why two colleagues doing broadly the same job were not paid exactly the same – one of them would have taken on an additional responsibility.  The dynamism created by allowing for staff to take on additional duties – and be rewarded for them, without having to go through the rigmarole of re-evaluation every time – would work wonders for our skills deployment, and reinvigorate local government’s ability to respond appropriately to evolving roles within changing circumstances.

Replacing Single Status

The other option, then, would be to replace Single Status in its entirety.  If we were to do this, we would end up adopting a model more similar to the private sector and the rest of the working world, where roles are created, altered, merged and – sadly! – removed as necessary.

Under this approach, we would look to industry going rates to establish our salaries; higher pay would be accrued through taking on additional duties or responsibilities dynamically, just as it does elsewhere, and we would satisfy equal pay legislation by following government proposals introduced this year to publish statistics that would highlight any issues with a gender pay gap.

In this way, we would have the dynamism to pay staff as we deem appropriate from the outset and then look to see whether a gender pay problem has arisen, rather than being hamstrung by a system that forces everyone to assume there will always be a problem unless that system is followed to the letter.  There is no reason why we could not adopt the jury duty model of continually reviewing and learning about the roles of all our staff at the same time, of course.

The point about going rates in industry is an important one in another respect, too.  All too often, public sector roles are less well-paid than similar roles in the business world, despite various media reports suggesting that public sector pay is better than in the private sector.


It is important to bear in mind that many – albeit not all – roles that exist in the public sector are not exclusive to it.  This is particularly the case in my own field of IT: our jobs exist everywhere, and we can work in any sector.  Most IT professionals do not go into the field to work in a particular sector – they will go where the best jobs can be found.  This means that, if we do not want the public sector’s services to be second-rate, its staff must not be second-rate, which means its salaries must not be either.  Realistically, there will probably always be some element of disparity… but we could be doing considerably better with this than we are at present, and reforming or replacing Single Status could well be the first step on that journey.

Finally, then, there is the question of who would orchestrate all this.  Leaving it to individual local authorities is likely to result in ‘pockets of best practice’ and an inconsistent approach across the country, so there is a role for central government here too.  After Brexit, a flexible and dynamic private sector workforce will be needed, but this must also be supported by a flexible and dynamic public sector workforce, which is currently lacking under Single StatusI call on the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to reflect on this.

Now, would all of this cost money?  Yes – yes, it would.  But then again, bringing about improvements generally does.  Perhaps rather than spending the promised post-Brexit billions specifically on the NHS, we could look to spend them on ‘the public sector’ more generally, in ways just like those I have outlined here. 

2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the first publication of the (now online) ‘Green Book’ of local authority pay and conditions, and it is now time – high time! – for it to be revisited again.

Part 4 (and links to 1-3)



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