Challenges the public servant could do without

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All public servants share the same challenges. But what are these challenges? And how should public servants respond to them?

Before answering the second question I want to see if I can tie down the first. This, therefore, is a list of the most significant challenges from the point of view of the individual public servant (not the organisational perspective — there is already plenty written on that).

By challenge I mean a circumstance beyond the immediate control of the public servant that makes it more difficult for them to make a difference.

I do not mean the issues that public servants face in their day to day work. The complexity of the problems faced by some clients and the emotional strain of working alongside them, for example, are difficulties that are part and parcel of practice.

This is not to belittle in anyway the tremendous emotional strain that many public workers face as part of the day jobs. On the contrary; it is because so many are working on the edge that the unnecessary challenges need to be addressed.

In many ways these are issues that might be associated with any large organisation. However, I would argue that the distinctive thing is the public service orientation of the individual. If someone cares less about making a difference then why should it matter if these challenges get in the way?

Whether the organisation is large or small, public or otherwise it is the ‘worms eye view’ of the individual public servant that I think makes this list distinctive.

It is not so easy to find an overview but here are some places I have looked.

The Canadian Government publish their Public Service Employee Survey online. It includes a series of questions on ‘organizational performance’ that ask employees about those things that affect the quality of their work.

A recent survey by the Guardian of 3,700 UK public service workers paints a depressing picture of the challenges faced by public service workers in the age of austerity. It highlights how long hours and stress have become a fact of life for many.

Michael Lipsky’s epic work on Street Level Bureaucrats is another useful source. He points to the systemic nature of the challenges faces by public servants and how, as a result, life for many workers is simply about getting by. For Lipsky the coping mechanisms that workers employ are ‘basic to survival’.

Another point of reference is the well known Whitehall study of health in the Civil Service . This study found that men in lower grades have three times the mortality rates of those in higher grades.

Just to be clear, what follows is not a list of moans. The purpose is to identify those things that get in the way of being a public servant so that thought can be given to how they might be reduced or avoided.

So here is the list if you just want to get the gist. I deal with each one in more detail below.

  1. Work overload
  2. Lack of control
  3. Unnecessary work
  4. Unhelpful reforms
  5. Silo working
  6. Lack of recognition
  7. Unhelpful targets
  8. Uncertainty
  9. Lack of opportunity
  10. Hierarchy
  11. Deadtime
  12. Lack of trust

1. Work overload

Over demand and casework overload are facts of life for many public servants.

The Guardian survey, for example, highlights social workers who report having more work to do with fewer staff and fewer external support services to share the load. Jo Cleary, chair of the College of Social Work says:

Our members report juggling highly complex workloads, with little time to reflect and plan their work. Putting this kind of pressure on social workers, while expecting them to do complex, delicate work with some of the most vulnerable people in our society, is dangerous.

The Canadian staff survey found that nearly 50% of public sector workers were having to do the same or more work, but with fewer resources. At the same time 25% felt that they were being asked to work to unreasonable deadlines.

For Michael Lipsky, this challenge of work overload reflects a tension at the heart of public sector work. While policy makers and managers are interested in the quantity of cases dealt with, for the public servant who administers the service, the quality and impact of the work are more important.

2. Lack of control

A lack of discretion over their work can leave the public servant frustrated when they can see what needs to be done but are prevented from doing it. Unnecessarily detailed procedures or interference from superiors — what is known as micro management — are both aspect of this challenge.

Discretion is a key theme in Lipsky’s work. He argues that, while the very nature of front-line public services (complexity of cases etc) means that discretion is necessary, managers will seek to limit the freedom of workers in order to achieve organisational goals.

The challenge associated with a lack of control, then, not only leads to restrictions on the work that can be done but draws the public servant into battles with managers that in turn take them even further away from the work they wish to be doing.

Risk aversion on the part of organisations provides another dimension to these battles. Risk taking can be an important aspect of discretion for the public servant.

3. Unnecessary work

What many would label ‘bureaucracy’. Unnecessary work is required by the organisation but it contributes nothing, either directly or indirectly, to the public good from the perspective of the public servant. Typical examples would include time sheets, annual performance reviews, monitoring reports and complex processes for invoicing and payments.

For many public servants record keeping is felt to be necessary to ‘cover one’s back’ should things go wrong. Inspection and audits also require a great deal of additional paperwork either ‘in preparation for’ or ‘in case of’ something going wrong. Many will see inspections, such as those associated with schools, a particularly draining distraction from day to day work.

This does not mean, of course, that public servants wish to be unaccountable. The opposite in fact — being a public servant means placing accountability at the heart of your work. The difficulty is when audits and inspections either fail in their aim of promoting accountability or are so time consuming that they damage the very thing they are seeking to test.

Now many of these things may be important for the organisation but they take the public servant away from what they really want to be doing. Of course if unnecessary work is not even justified from the organisational perspective then doing it becomes even more stressful and demoralising.

This issue was one of the ‘top’ scorers in the Canadian survey where 42% felt that their work was inhibited by overly complicated or unnecessary business processes.

4. Unhelpful reforms

Given the complex nature of the work and the significant changes going on around it, change is inevitable.

From the perspective of the public servant, however, not all reform is helpful.

The first problem is the relentless nature of reform initiatives.

Here are a few examples of management reform from my time as a public servant:

Quality circles, results based accountability, balanced scorecards, programme management, agile working, systems thinking, total quality management, performance management, neighbourhood management, commerciality.

Of course organisational reforms (for those working in larger organisations) are just as regular. The context of austerity in the UK right now has meant that staffing structures are changing with an alarming frequency with all of the disruption that brings.

Lipsky argues that ‘bureaucracies are permeated with turmoil rationalized as change-related’. There is so much change that ‘no one change seems better than any other change’. The end result is that ‘the currency of change is debased’.

An added difficulty for the public servant is that the practice of reform can often be poor and ill thought through. ‘Managing change’ is an almost automatic addition to the job description of any senior manager and yet it is unclear whether anyone really knows how to do it. Or has the means to asses whether anyone else know how to do it.

From the public servant point of view reform can be seem like just a series of additional meetings to attend and reports to complete with no obvious benefit for the work they are doing. In the case of restructures it can also lead to competition for jobs and all of the stress and uncertainty that brings (see 8). Top down reform (the most common type) also serves to underline the powerlessness of public servants within large organisations (see 2).

5. Silo working

Silo working is what happens when departments or organisations focus on protecting their own position and role rather than the needs of the people that they are working for.

From the public servant’s point of view this makes it harder to get things done.

As I have highlighted before, the public servant is motivated primarily by the public good. They may, however, find themselves working with people who are not. Silo working means that individuals are motivated primarily by the interests if their department or organisation. This is entirely legitimate of course but it leads to an unhelpful context for the public servant to work in. One in which the public good is not necessarily the priority.

Silo working makes it particularly difficult for public servants wanting to work in partnership. Good work done in the field can be undone back at home base where commitment and understanding from decision makers is lacking.

6. Lack of recognition

The problem of lack of recognition is not just about the public servant getting personal appreciation for good work well done. There is nothing wrong with that of course — there should be more of it.

The Guardian survey found that 40% of public sector workers think their contribution is always or often valued. Of course the flip side of that is that 60% are not so sure. This matters because, when work does not get recognised or respected it is vulnerable when priorities are decided or budgets set.

More generally public servants often get a poor deal in the way that they are portrayed in the media. The social workers, police officers and teachers often seen in TV soaps and dramas are not the dedicated professionals that I would recognise. These media stereotypes creates a barrier between public professionals and the people that they work with. Particularly when they are portrayed as interfering busybodies, as ‘jobsworths’ or as people with axes to grind. This is so far from the truth.

7. Unhelpful targets

Public servants work to their organisation’s priorities and it is, of course, right that they do so. Typically these priorities filter their way through the individual worker through in the form of performance objectives and targets. It is at this point that priorities become a challenge.

The problems associated with targets are well known. Lipsky, for example, highlights the way that a focus on one aspect of work can have detrimental affects on another, the way that reporting becomes unreliable when targets are used to measure performance and the problems that happen when the focus is on outputs rather than outcomes.

Furthermore, public servants may not recognise the value of the targets set by their organisation. Even though they may agree with a priority, the way to achieve it, represented by those targets may be seen as entirely wrong.

8. Uncertainty

Uncertainty in the work place makes it difficult for the public servant to focus on what needs to be done or to plan meaningfully.

A Finnish study (which to some degree challenges the findings of the Whitehall study), for example, suggests that lack of predictability in the work place is a significant factor when it comes to stress for lower grade workers.

Causes of uncertainty include turnover of co-workers and the changing priorities of organisations. In the Canadian survey, for example, 29% agreed that high staff turn over interfered with their work and 40% said that constantly changing priorities made their work suffer. More generally 25% felt that the quality of their work suffered, always or often, because of a ‘lack of stability in my department or agency’.

A further cause of uncertainty are emergencies. This category could, of course, include just about any major external event that disrupts the organisation and therefore the work of the public servant. From air disasters to flu epidemics, from flooding to major fires. Sometimes, ironically, the preparation for emergencies can be more disruptive than the emergencies themselves.

9. Lack of opportunity

This challenge is a cause of frustration for the public servant who is unable to develop either their work or themselves.

Much of the time the responsive nature of the work means that opportunities for doing preventative work and early interventions -the reason that many signed up to be a public servant -are extremely limited.

A ‘lack of skill utilization’ was one of the stress factors highlighted in the Whitehall study, for example.

The cause might be the organisational context that the public servant is working in or the fact that they are working alone with limited resources.

Lack of opportunity can be made worse when the public servant sees things going on elsewhere that they do not have access to where they are — new ways of doing things or new technology for example.

10. Hierarchy

In the Canadian survey ‘too many approval stages’ was near the top of the list of things affecting the quality of the quality of work. Lengthy sign-off processes that involve many layers of decision making are a difficult fact of life for many public servants. This often feels like unnecessary work (see 3).

A second problem associated with hierarchy is that, from the perspective of those at the bottom, those at the top can appear distant, obscure and secretive. Communication in this context becomes a problem. Either messages are too general to be meaningful or they are treated with suspicion. Trust is a big issue in hierarchies.

11. Deadtime

Linked to unnecessary work but not quite the same — deadtime refers to the parts of the working day when the public servant is unable to do the work they want to.

The first example of deadtime is travel. Care workers who go from home to home or public servants who work with schools, for example, will spend a lot of time in their cars getting from place to place but unable to do anything else while they are doing it. Poor ICT can make this even worse if people are unable to work when they get to where they are going. Security policies can make it difficult for some to connect to business systems away from the office.

A second example of deadtime might be unproductive time spent in meetings. Meetings in themselves may be useful (or they may not) but, sitting through items that are not relevant to you, can be frustrating for many public servants.

In both of these examples it is the way that the work is designed, lack of consideration by co-workers or the ICT provided (or not provided) that create the challenge — not the work itself.

12. Lack of Trust

Finally, lack of trust may be a real challenge for many. It is closely related to lack of control but is distinct I think.

A lack of trust may lead to micro management and a high level of monitoring, reporting and observation — all of which may hinder the public servant.

This is a challenge that has psychological and motivational implications as well as practical. As Ros Searle pointed out at this Wales Audit Office seminar, 37% of job satisfaction comes from trust — consider the effect when it is missing.

So, what next?

Well, for all of these challenges there are coping strategies that might reduce or remove remove the problem. This is what I would like to explore in future posts.

For public servants this is a check-list that might be used when thinking about how to make life easier for co-workers.

After all, an important part of being a public servant is is helping, not hindering, others to make a difference. Or, as Ghandi put it so well; ‘to be the change we want to see in the world’.

Thanks to Mike Rowe, Peter Matthews and Dr Anonymous for their comments on an earlier draft.