States staff and bosses both to blame for friction over modernisation

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WHAT were billed as crucial talks between the unions and the States of Jersey this week indicate that your £47 million workforce modernisation programme really isn’t running smoothly.

That’s not surprising. It’s a big project, with some winners and losers, and the army of civil servants working in the public sector are demotivated at the prospect of receiving 3.3 per cent more pay by 2020. In all, there’s 3,229 of them – approaching the number of people who live in St Mary, and I gather they’re a pretty precious bunch out there too.

Anyway, this isn’t going to be a set-piece attack on the public sector. That’s because my experience on this side of the water is that there are some incredibly hard-working and dedicated individuals at all levels helping to keep our communities running smoothly.

The problem is that there aren’t enough of them. Good ones that is, not total numbers, which are excessive. I say that with some confidence and will explain why in a moment.

What I really wanted to set out, however, is that the friction between staff and employer actually represents a failure by both parties and is a reflection of how neither has really kept pace with today’s changing labour relations and workplace demands.

It’s difficult to know who to blame most for that. Since politicians have ultimate sign-off, the buck stops there, I suppose. But most didn’t have the skills, interest or bottle in previous years to keep the lid on rising costs when finance was booming.

You can see that in the rates that you pay – crazily high – compared with the Guernsey civil service for the same work and, crucially, similar outcomes.

This is what consultants Capita had to say: ‘Historically the resources available to the States to fund the delivery of its services have exceeded the funds needed to efficiently deliver those services. Requests for resources were met, revenue overspends did not generally occur and a financially profligate culture was able to flourish.

‘Operating within this funding environment has meant departments have, in many instances, been able to provide “gold plated” services or, indeed, services where there is no clear rationale at all for government intervention. There has also been no imperative to deliver services efficiently.’

Strong stuff. And, yes, I do realise that was stated about Guernsey nine years ago this month. But does anyone doubt it applies equally here in Jersey? Especially with your bigger economy and larger surpluses?

Irrespective, all businesses are seeking to do more with less and, while both the Jersey and Guernsey States say they are – belatedly – going down the same route, there’s not a great deal of evidence of success or progress.

For me, the biggest indicator of how far the process has to run is the civil service saying 3.3 per cent isn’t enough and government responding ‘there’s no more money in the pot,’ – cue instant threats of industrial action.

What’s not happening at government or union level is an adult conversation along the lines of, ‘if not 3.3 per cent, what do you think is fair and how do you propose paying for the extra?’

Self-funding pay rises have been used for years by the private sector as a way of buying out inefficient and featherbed practices but I’ve yet to see either States go down this route.

Instead of at least attempting to view labour relations as a partnership, the States’ approach is, it seems to me, unnecessarily adversarial – your ‘crunch talks’ and ‘industrial action’ headlines are a classic illustration of that.

It was so bad in Guernsey that a few years ago, the States negotiators were entirely content for the airport to close while a tribunal was held to adjudicate on a firefighters’ pay and retention claim.

While talking of the other island, I also came across an example where the harbour maintenance guys enjoyed a height allowance. Not being paid extra because they were tall but – as painters and decorators – for going up a ladder. Unbelievable, but the bureaucracy signed off on that and also paid them an extra ‘offshore’ allowance if they had to paint Roustel Beacon or whatever.

You will have similar nonsense in your system as well, of course, but I hope you too have consolidated the stokers’ pay crane drivers used to get, a hangover from the days when they had to get up early to fire the boiler on the old steam cranes before they could actually start work.

I mentioned overstaffing earlier and the reason the States suffers from it is that there’s no effective performance management and so duffers and achievers are treated equally, with little effort to weed out the useless. Very motivational.

That said, your Economic Development Minister was telling the IoD in 2014 that ‘I believe that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our public service.’

Four years on and I suspect you’re not seeing much evidence of that. Which means around £370 million of expenditure – half of all States of Jersey outgoings – really isn’t being adequately controlled and, from the ‘crunch talks’ headlines, the culture shift and workforce modernisation discussed back then by the Economic Development Minister really hasn’t happened.

If I was a Jersey taxpayer, I’d be asking who had responsibility for staff transformation, what their objectives were and what they had achieved.

Then that’s one piece of performance management you could safely leave to voters on 16 May.

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