Austerity has eroded the value of public sector work

The UK was once proud of local government and its employees. Today, through a combination of disrespect and neglect, we are dangerously blasé. Today, a dark cloud hangs over them despite their great efforts in very hard times. Talented people have left, and, as services reduce, capacity is being hollowed out.

The ongoing wrangle over local government pay and union demands that wages are brought up to at least the living wage is a symptom of this malaise. To be a local government sector worker is losing value.

This is not just about salaries and pay, which should be maintained at the living wage and labour market levels so that local government can retain and recruit staff. It is also about value in terms of the wider social worth and respect given to this work.

‘Within a culture of individualism and private interest,

local government is increasingly seen as a job like any other’

The general erosion of public sector values has been happening for years. Austerity and overly hasty outsourcing of public sector goods and services have eroded this value. Indeed private sector management techniques, neo-classical economics and increased marketization has damaged how we think and act toward this public sphere of our lives.

Within a culture of individualism and private interest, local government work is increasingly seen as a job like any other. This has been allowed to penetrate far too deeply into the work that is done and into issues of salaries and pay.

Public sector work has a different value attached to it than work in the private sector.  Public value is about the distribution of goods and services on the basis of need and not just on ability to pay. Local government work operates in a democratic context where the common interests of society are central. Local government work, from bin collection to social services, is about improving the small and big things which make society work effectively.

Failure to recognise this is folly and a false economy. We are in a pressured public sector reform context, in which we need to manage growing demand and get better outcomes from less public money. However, the irony is that we are in danger of disrespecting the very people who are and will be the architects of this transformation.

Public sector values and local government activity are on the front line of developing social wellbeing. Citizens in need must be supported and nurtured before issues become even more acute (and more expensive!). Indeed public sector workers are also important citizens in their own right, with unique insight into communities, services and how decisions can affect their lives. And of course many local government workers volunteer and pay a role in the in communities they serve.

It’s all about priorities. We can choose the shortsighted route of continuing the gradual erosion of the worth given to work within local government, sap morale and see the steady loss of talented people. Or we can be far-sighted, pay decent salaries for all, ensure living wage for workers and contractors and start to energise the distinctive role which local government work plays in creating an efficient, decent and fair society for all.


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