Public service staff do not feel valued by government, leaders tell Prime Minister

This content relates to the following topics:

The government should mount a major campaign to champion public servants, a group of public service leaders has told the Prime Minister, in an open letter.

The letter calls on the Prime Minister to build on his recent speeches about the value of public services with a concerted effort to raise the esteem in which their staff are held. It argues that, at present, London's public service workers do not feel valued, either by the public, by their employers or by political leaders.

The letter warns that the biggest single cause of discontent amongst public service workers is the criticism they receive from politicians and the media, and the impact this has on their public image. Many find their work to be stressful and unrewarding.

Pay and the cost of living, deteriorating working conditions and other, more attractive opportunities elsewhere are causing staff shortages across the public sector.

The letter calls on the government to tackle these fundamental issues across all of our public services – not just those with the highest political profile. In addition to a campaign to promote the value of public service, pay and working conditions should be improved, and investment in staff training and development should be encouraged, not compromised in the name of efficiency.

The King's Fund chief executive Rabbi Julia Neuberger commented:

'This letter shows the depth of feeling amongst public service leaders about the staffing issues they face. If the Government is serious about bringing world class public services to Britain, it must heed the message coming from those who know most about them.

'The Prime Minister has begun to address the problem of public service workers feeling undervalued. If this could be translated into a concerted plan of action to raise the value of public service, it could help to overcome many of the staffing problems we currently face.'

Notes to editors

The letter will be signed by:

George Barlow OBE, Chair, London Development Agency
Steve Bundred, Chief Executive, London Borough of Camden
Will Hutton, Chief Executive, Industrial Society
Dr Beverly Malone, General Secretary, Royal College of Nursing
Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Chief Executive, King's Fund
Sir John Stevens, Commissioner, Metropolitan Police

A copy of the letter is appended to this press release. For more details, or for interviews with the signatories to the letter, please contact Andrew Bell on 020 7307 2585 or 07831 554931, or Daniel Reynolds on 020 7307 2581.

Rt Hon Tony Blair MP
Prime Minister
10 Downing Street

18 February 2002

Dear Prime Minister

We are leading figures in a range of organisations providing and observing public services, including health, housing, police, and local government. Following your recent speech about improving and supporting these services, we are writing to propose ways forward to help renew public services.

As you know, there are significant problems in recruiting and retaining staff across the public sector which are severely compromising the quality of service that can be provided. These issues are worse in London than elsewhere, and retention of staff is often more difficult than recruitment. The Government has begun to address these issues, but more action is needed, and quickly.

Five main factors are contributing to the problem. Firstly, and most significantly, is how public sector workers appear to be valued by politicians and the media, and the knock-on effects this has on public perceptions. Despite your recent support for public sector professionalism, all too frequently the actual policies and priorities of politicians give the message that public services are badly managed and need to be taught lessons from the private sector, or at least can be trusted only to carry out tasks set by central government.

Secondly, pay and the cost of living. Despite efforts to boost salaries in real terms, pay remains an issue, particularly starting salaries. The lack of affordable housing and the decaying infrastructure of transport in the capital are adverse influences on recruiting and retaining workers in the public sector.

Thirdly, the changing nature of jobs in the public sector. Across all sectors, workloads have intensified and there have been growing, and often uncoordinated, requirements for audit, inspection and regulation, and paperwork. In some areas there have been increasing examples of violence against public sector workers, for example, in the NHS.

Fourthly, increasing employment opportunities in both the public and private sectors are drawing staff away from frontline work. These positions, in research and audit for example, are often perceived to be better paid for less stressful work and have more manageable working hours.

Fifthly, London appears to be a training ground for many professionals in the public sector, exporting trained workers to other areas of the country and abroad, which makes retention a significant problem.

These trends have stark effects which cannot be ignored. Staff shortages are significant. For example, the Royal College of Nursing estimates there were around 20,000 whole time equivalent nurse vacancies in the NHS in England in March 2001. Although there has been progress in filling vacancies, nurse shortages are still widespread across the NHS. Some London Boroughs have a 40% vacancy rate for qualified social workers. Only 64% of advertisements for posts in secondary schools in London result in successful appointments.

There has been some action to address these problems, but much more needs to be done. Firstly, the esteem problem should be tackled vigorously. The Government should consider a major and sustained campaign to champion public servants and the values that underpin their work. In order to challenge some of the current assumptions, a key objective should be to inform the public more about the complex and responsible jobs performed by public sector workers, and the high level of skills that many have.

Secondly, pay and conditions have to be further improved. For example, loyalty payments could be considered for long service, and guaranteed pay to cover sabbaticals or 'study' leave introduced. Pension arrangements could also be more flexible. Consideration should be given to increasing the transferability of pensions across the public sector.

Thirdly, there could be a reduction in the application of efficiency or cost minimisation targets to the public sector. A thorough pruning of the amount of paperwork required, such as that associated with monitoring and audit, is also essential, with specific emphasis on reducing unnecessary duplication.

Without the support of a stable, well-trained, well-motivated workforce the Government's efforts to modernise public services, no mater how determined, will have limited success. We therefore hope the Government will help ensure public service workers in London and the whole of the UK are once again held in high esteem and have the support they need to deliver the highest quality services.

Yours sincerely

George Barlow OBE
Chair, London Development Agency

Steve Bundred
Chief Executive, London Borough of Camden

Will Hutton
Chief Executive, Industrial Society

Dr Beverly Malone
General Secretary, Royal College of Nursing

Rabbi Julia Neuberger
Chief Executive, King's Fund

Sir John Stevens
Commissioner, Metropolitan Police