Listen to the front-line, and that doesn’t just mean professionals

Heather Wakefield

As the TUC meets in Liverpool, Heather Wakefield (Head of Local Government, Police and Justice for UNISON) gives her thoughts on the 21st Century Public Servant:

I have been very pleased and privileged to take part in a couple of stimulating round tables on the 21st Century Public Servant. What public service workers do, how public money is spent and the experience of service users – in what sadly does look like becoming an era of ‘perma-austerity’ – is one of the critical issues of our time and central to my job as Head of Local Government, Police and Justice at UNISON. All public service workers are sadly becoming “stewards of scarce public resources”.

So too of course is the fight for economic and social justice, a much fairer distribution of wealth, adequate levels of public funding , the best possible use of public money and, above all, decent treatment and a productive working life for UNISON members – whether ‘front-line’, Chief Executives or middle managers. These issues too are critical to the role of the 21st Century Public Servant. In other words, the values and politics within which this debate takes place really do matter.

Some of the key questions raised by the project are not new – particularly to women’s and disabled peoples’ organisations, the black community, older people, the unemployed and LGBT groups who have all been engaged for decades and longer in the struggle to ensure that childcare, transport, housing, care and education meet the specific needs of diverse populations, that the voices of users are listened to and acted upon and that resources are fairly allocated. Listening to their experience and learning from it is a must.

Ironically, the fight for services which were affordable, enabled equal access to education, transport and the labour market and recognised the unique role of women as mothers and carers found its most ready listener in the GLC and what became branded the ‘loony left’ Labour councils of the 70’s and 80’s.

That’s not to say that every municipal response was the best or most effective imaginable, but there was a genuine attempt to recognise that a ‘one size fits all’ model of service delivery was definitely not hitting everyone’s spot. Projects like Haringey Women’s Employment Project worked with school meals workers on more effective means of producing healthy food, while being properly rewarded for the job. Properly resourced Co-op Development Agencies explored new delivery models and adequately funded pensioners’ organisations generated local support networks for the isolated elderly.

The response of my (then) union NUPE to CCT – Compulsory Competitive Tendering – and market testing in the NHS in the 1980’s was not just to oppose an ideological experiment with manual women workers’ lives and essential public services: it was to get stuck in with councils and hospitals in the drawing up of specifications and tenders to ensure that the ‘human’ side of jobs which meant most to users was not lost. In the event, privatised hospital cleaning meant no time for the ward cleaner to chat with patients, do their hair, make them tea and even nip out to place their bets! Services were de-humanised and women’s pay and conditions were slashed.

It is vital that this very important debate about the role of the 21st Century Public Servant tells it like it is and is based on:

  • The assumption that we must all strive for the best possible use of precious public money. Even in ‘good’ times, there is always unmet need which should be identified and responded to.
  •  A rigorous assessment of the history and experience of outsourcing to the private and voluntary sectors. So far there is ample evidence of cheaper and fragmented service delivery, cost-cutting, wage decline, absence of pensions and training, healthy profit margins and even fraud – but is there real evidence of service improvement? Certainly not in home care, where service is poor and many workers eke out a living below the Minimum Wage. If there is, what can we learn from it? If not, what are the messages about optimum use of public money?
  • The views of service users, front-line workers, senior ‘leaders’ and elected members about the genuine deficiencies of public services and what is needed to make them more fit for purpose. At present, the vast, accumulated knowledge and experience of front-line workers about what works and what doesn’t is rarely excavated and far less taken seriously. New Labour’s fatal assumption of ‘provider capture’ prevented radical adventures in more responsive in-house service delivery and simply passed public money to the market.
  • A belief that ‘career building’ is not confined to so-called ‘professionals’ – by whom I assume to be graduates with traditional career expectations. Investment in training, experiments in collaborative working across established boundaries and space for innovative practice cannot just be the prerogative of ‘the professionals’. Innovation must be bottom-up as well as top down. Currently, per capita spend on training in local government falls well below £200 a year and 90% of that is spent on managers. What chance a new direction for the front- line?
  • A scrutiny of the appropriateness and effectiveness of existing governance and lay leadership of public services. In local government, big questions must be asked about the profile of elected members and their ability to represent the views of local communities and understand their needs: over 60% of councillors are white men, aged over 60. Meanwhile 78% of the workforce are women and our population is increasingly diverse. The absence of user voice within the NHS also requires urgent action.
  • Acceptance that the way all parts of the workforce are treated will be critical to loyalty, commitment, willingness to innovate, pride in the job and advocacy of the employer. Pushing public service pay and conditions into the ground and hacking away at professional autonomy is unlikely to lead to new thinking and collaborative leadership.



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