There is a crisis looming in the public services workforce with a shrinking workforce unable to meet the rising demand for increasingly complex services. This is the conclusion of a hard-hitting report by the cross-party House of Lords Public Services Committee published this week – Fit for the Future? Rethinking the public services workforce.
The report further concludes that the current situation will only worsen, with demand for services rising faster than the working-age population and the public service having to deliver the same or better services with less labour available. While the challenge is significant, the report sets out an action plan for Government and argues that imaginative, creative and flexible solutions must be implemented to make public service careers attractive and ensure there is a sustainable workforce for the future.
The Committee’s plan for action includes:
The Committee reports that many public service workers felt “intense pressure” and experienced “suffering” due to increased pressure and rising vacancies: ultimately this creates a vicious circle affecting people who access these services. Discrimination is also a factor as this remains at unacceptable levels and acts as a barrier to the recruitment and retention of talented staff. The public service workforce cannot be sustainable until the experiences of staff are broadly positive. There must be an end to the cultural problems driving people to leave.
The Committee concludes that there is too little imagination and flexibility in who is deployed to do what job. Referring to “untapped potential”, it finds that empowering staff to make more decisions, and prioritising preventative services would result in a more effective workforce able to deliver more, and better, into the future. The potential of many staff to deliver services is largely untapped. There is a need to get the most out of the workforce by empowering them and thinking imaginatively about where they could be deployed.
To tackle serious difficulties in recruitment, the Committee looked at the “offer” of public service careers. It found that pay will continue to constitute a significant barrier to workforce sustainability and looked at other ways of enhancing the offer. The report concludes that the offer of public service careers should be made more attractive by fixing pensions and offering flexible working. In addition, the need to fix the broken brand of public service careers and get an appealing message out is highlighted.
Routes into careers
The Committee heard that traditional routes into public service careers were limiting and may not be the best way to train the workforce needed for the future. Alternative entry routes such as apprenticeships and local talent pools offer real potential to reach candidates – including those who may not be able to afford a degree. Action must be taken to create new and accessible entry routes, and properly use those that already exist.
People now want broader portfolio careers, and the idea of a job for life with a good pension is no longer the ultimate goal. The public sector must adapt to support this shift in preferences. The report pushes for a mindset shift and concludes that public sector employers must train to retain and rethink development so that skills can be recognised and used more effectively across broad careers. The report also urges the Government to prioritise the development of training programmes to ensure services work for users through meaningful consultation.
Committee Chair, Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top said of the report:
“It is clear that user demands on the public services workforce are increasing and that staff numbers cannot keep up. It is imperative that we find new and different ways of delivering effective public services and taking the public sector workforce along in this process so that people get a better service when they access these facilities.
“If the plan of action we set out is implemented, it will be a substantial step in ensuring a public sector workforce that is efficient, effective and sustainable in the long-term. We need to reshape – and rebrand – public services to make them an attractive career choice. We can do that by empowering people and providing innovative training with personal and professional development, so they feel valued and want to remain in these important careers. In addition, consultation with service users and those with lived experience will allow their input to be a real part of redesigning services to deliver exactly what is needed when it is needed.
“We recognise that this is not just a job for Whitehall but for local government, regulators, professional bodies, universities, senior public service management and all other relevant parties who will have to work together to address how the increasing and inescapable challenges faced by the public services workforce can be tackled.
“We urge the Government to take the lead in implementing the report’s plan of action and encourage other relevant parties to join in implementing the necessary changes for a public services workforce which is fit for the future.”