Our public services are at breaking point – we need imaginative solutions to provide a sustainable workforce for the future

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The public service workforce is at breaking point.

Staffing shortages are significant and have serious implications for service users. Morale is very low and employers are not doing enough to make public service careers attractive to future employees. Recruitment difficulties are considerable and with an aging population, this vicious circle will worsen.

The Lords Public Services Committee which I chair has studied how those who provide public services can be supported and empowered to make delivery effective, how to attract them to take up public service positions and how to ensure that they want to stay. The answer is, in large part, to be more flexible. Be more flexible in the deployment of teams, allowing them to make decisions, the use of technology and in the external engagement and the way people are supported to enter the labor market. The action plan we have established would, if implemented, make a substantial difference.

Local apprenticeships and talent pools could be used to attract, recruit and train the next generation of civil servants and civil servants

We have always been clear that preventative care is the way to go. This survey has only reinforced this view, but funding for prevention services has fallen by 47% over the past decade. Prioritizing prevention, whether in health care, social welfare or the justice system, is the economically sensible thing to do.

Our dedicated and talented public servants should also be empowered to undertake tasks in the full range of their abilities. Medical associates, for example, (who perform many of the tasks of a GP) should be able to prescribe drugs – but regulations prohibit this. Frontline workers have to seek approval for their decisions far more often than is reasonable. We must do better to harness the full potential of our people; not only for their benefit, but for the users of the services who bear the brunt of the delays.

As a company, we also put in place unnecessary barriers for those who wish to qualify for particular roles. Again, public sector employers, professional bodies, regulatory bodies and universities should be much more flexible in how they recruit. Inspiring examples at the local level have shown us hope for how local apprenticeships and talent pools could be used to attract, recruit and train the next generation of civil servants and civil servants. Medical apprenticeships are promising because they allow people to qualify without debt and with the same level of expertise at the end of the process. Alternative routes can also help increase diversity: many groups are under-represented in the public service workforce. Shouldn’t the size of the public service reflect the population it serves?

We’ve seen a sea change in the way people view their careers: more ‘portfolio’ than ‘job for life’. If we want to keep people in the public sector, we need to find ways for them to develop their skills in the role and move from job to job, with recognition of the skills they have developed. We have recommended a system for recording experience and expertise wherever it is developed. This would help resolve the absurdity we have now, where an associate physician wishing to train as a GP would have to start from scratch, going through medical school from scratch.

Our findings go to the heart of how the public sector can better attract, train and retain the people we need to deliver services in the future. And with a looming demographic crisis, the demand for services will grow much faster than the working-age population. The proportion of the population with multiple and complex needs will increase further, even if the available labor market will be smaller.

The challenge is daunting: the public sector will have to deliver the same or better results with less available manpower. It’s time to start making big changes.

Baroness Armstrong is a Labor peer and chair of the Lords Public Services Committee.

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