How much informality is ‘just right’ in public services?

In our work on the 21stC Public Servant, we often grumble about the excessive formality of public service organisations that can hamper the scope to make changes and take risks.

Today I sat in a cafe hearing people at the table next to me being interviewed for social care work with a private company. I reflected on how much more formal that interview would have been if it had been for an NHS job or other public service employer.

“Checkered floor cafe, tables and chairs, reflection, patio umbrellas outside, Beaverton, Oregon, USA” byWonderlane is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The informality of a cafe interview sends a number of messages. It indicates that the interviewees’ privacy is of no value, since conversations about the right to work and people’s living arrangements were perfectly audible to me and other nearby tables.

Bleak encounters

It is suggestive of a precariousness to the work – the care agency apparently having nowhere better to do their recruitment than a cafe. For both sides there seemed a bleakness to the encounter – interviewees asked if there would be guaranteed hours (answer: no); the interviewer was quick to take on anyone who had had previous care experience, without any further discussion of their suitability for the role. Given that recruitment of staff is known to be a major concern for care agencies perhaps they couldn’t afford to be picky.

It was particularly poignant for me because I was part way through a day of research visits to interview people who received care services. Many of them are anxious about the quality of care they receive, and the high turnover of staff coming into their home to help with intimate personal care. The brevity of the interview process didn’t fill me with any confidence that these recruits would be any more likely to stay in the job.

Sticky People or Cafe People

The cafe recruitment process combines the worst of informality (e.g. lack of privacy) with the worst of formality (right to work checks, bank statements etc were poured over diligently). There was no evidence of the kinds of conversation that might help recruit what Neil Eastwood calls ‘sticky people‘, which take time to discover people’s values and aptitudes.

We need different sorts of conversations with people working in public services like social care that involve intensely personal encounters with people. Perhaps things are changing in parts of the sector. I saw a social care recruitment poster last week which had the headline ‘Are you a nice person?’ The toolkit that Skills for Care has developed on values-based recruitment is a step in the right direction.

Initiatives like these are often taken up by large companies: those with HR departments, and actual offices in which to undertake interviews. Given that much social care is delivered by small to medium organisations, we need to make sure the message is getting heard – even by those who recruit their staff in the corner of a cafe.


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