Posts Tagged 'government'

The Ills of the public sector

My girlfriend works in the public sector, and for the last year and a half, I’ve had an interesting insight into the inner workings of a government-funded organisation. She works for a company that is tasked in giving direction and career guidance to students aged between 11 and 16 both in schools and in local communities. And she hates it.

One of the main issues with her job is the lack of work ethic her colleagues display. In the private sector, if you work hard and are successful, you get rewarded. If you don’t, are lazy or are permanently ill, you are disciplined or further still sacked. Fair enough you may say. However in the public sector this is not the case, as many a time she has complained about people displaying minimum effort but reaping the same rewards as someone who has worked much harder. Many times she has come back from work having to cover the shift of someone who is off ill. This does little for her morale. Furthermore she is then tasked with covering the target of this absentee, despite her exceeding her own target without praise or any incentive to perform. As a naturally hard-working person, this can be extremely demoralising. Until recently, I thought this was a local issue with her organisation. However it seems that this is symptomatic of the public sector.

Her argument was compounded by an article we read recently in the Sunday Times. Apparently Sir Stanley Kalms, upon becoming chairman of an NHS hospital, threw a tea party for members of staff who had served for more than 25 years, as a reward for loyal service. However what he encountered was a motley crew of people who neither he nor other members of staff even recognised, as the majority were either ill, grotesquely overweight  or “no longer fit and proper people to be in a hospital”, but crucially were still being paid. Also because their packages had been negotiated in more profitable times, they were generally on better pay than the majority of their colleagues. In the example, this had repercussions for the hospital, as wards were left short-staffed and hospitals were without funds to purchase vital equipment. Reading this made me realise that the local issue my girlfriend had mentioned time and time again was  actually a more generic issue afflicting the vast majority of the public sector.

But the question has to be asked, why can’t they just sack these individuals? In every company I’ve worked in in the private sector, if you had a long period of illness that was unexplainable you would at least be disciplined. However in the public sector, the trade unions have a much larger sphere of influence. Again according to the Harriet Sergeant’s article, 61% of state employees belong to a trade union, compared with only 20% in the private sector. Their influence is not waning either. In 2006, Labour received roughly 73% of their donations from unions. This figure is thought to have increased during the subsequent recession, as the labour government relied further on donations..

Unfortunately there is no real way to rectify this, as any real resolution will need to be dictated from the top, filtering down through the system. And as we know, this could take years to implement properly. However there are positive signs. There is pre-election talk of the Tories disbanding government-funded organisations such as Connexions, with a view to giving this responsibility to privately funded companies with a similar ethos. This is part of a more macro trend, as the government looks to increase the number of projects they relinquish. One way they are doing this is by outsourcing. Serco, one of their key benefactors of government outsourcing, recently posted a 34% rise in annual profit, and they expect this to grow further. By giving as much responsibility, jurisdiction and control where possible to companies who understand from the ground up their industry in the private sector will only help to weed out the inefficiencies of the public sector to bring it into line.


The shift in working practices

This is a guest post by one of my colleagues Max Stoner.

The rigid 9-5 structure that underpins Britain’s working week is something we’ve probably all questioned from time to time. In truth for most of us this has manifested itself in more of a meek whine or lament than an outright challenge to it, but even  louder and more boisterous voices of  discontent have often been undermined by a lack of belief; not necessarily in their our own powers to change, but in the working week’s capacity for significant change.

Until now that is…As currently the very structure and philosophy of our working week is under greater threat than at any other point in recent times. And if for a second you’re thinking of some recalcitrant movement; all dreadlocks and rotests and other musty wafts of non –conformity, then think again..

Because the role of agent provocateur in this attack on the working week, is in fact fulfilled by government backed initiative WorkWise UK. The organisation comes armed with fairly aggressive rhetoric about “consigning the working week to a thing of the past” and bringing about “change similar to the industrial revolution”. This no doubt conveys a pretty radical impression; although one somewhat tempered by closer inspection of their aims and principles.

In brief their raison d’être Is simply “to encourage the widespread adoption of smarter working practices”, which in actuality would equate to a shift towards more flexible working practices, such as an increase in remote working and greater flexibility over working hours. Their cumulative and ultimate goal; to “have 50% of the UK population working mainly in their own home, or in different places using home as a base within 5 years”

In many respects then their intention is not so much to dismantle the structures of our working week but rather to alleviate the undesirable rigidity that has plagued it for so long. Sort of like administering a very old, arthritic man with a super strength, and potentially destabilising shot of cod liver oil.

But why do we need change in the first place? Well to begin with let’s look at the way many of us begin our working day, with that poor excuse for travel we call the ‘commute’.

I accept that these vary in their nature, for many of us they take place in the squashed, cramped, antisocial and sweaty confines of our nation’s fine trains, tubes or buses. For others perhaps within the comfort of their own vehicle: albeit one stalled along a stretch of polluting, noisy and congested motorway that pulsates with palpable tension and collective raised blood pressure.

As well as being about as conducive to relaxation as holidaying in Baghdad, the commute also places stress on our roads and public transport infrastructure, and contributes significantly to environmental damage, because “a car travelling at crawling speed generates over 500g/km of carbon dioxide as opposed to 175g/km it would generate at 100 kph a hour”.

Furthermore recent sociological research seems to indicate that our work-life balance is out of kilter. The majority of people questioned in the 2008 Work and Family Life Report claimed “work dominated their lives, and family life suffered as a result”. The report also concluded that “working long hours led to increased levels of stress, resulting in irritability, exhaustion and depression”.

And if you’re not one for sentiment in respect to the social side effects of British working life, then take note that last year the CBI calculated over £5 billion was lost as a result of mental health and stress related illnesses. And the ramifications this has on our health and welfare sectors, one can only assume to be detrimental.

Workwise UK seeks to paint a picture of our traditional working week as archaic; a moribund relic, ill-suited to the demands of a complex and diverse 21c, wheezing and coughing it’s last polluting breaths of life towards it’s death bed.

Whether we agree with this diagnosis or not, clearly ways and means for us to function in a smarter more adaptable manner, and help reduce the ill effects of work on our nation’s society, health, economy and environment is not just desirable, but commonsensical.

Of course that’s not to say that a shift towards flexible working comes without it’s own caveats. Logistical and practical pitfalls are a plenty and in my own humble opinion success will rely on changing working culture and psychology as much as any legislative measures. But with government schemes like Work Wise, with the proliferation of flexible working over the last decade*, and with government legislation passed earlier this month; giving employees with children under the age of 16 legal  right to request flexible working; what we should expect is for flexible working to start to emerge as more of a concrete fixture across Britain’s working landscape.

While Workwise and other government initiatives are hoping to engineer this change, the principle catalyst in flexible working becoming viable, is technology, as Workwise chief exec Phil Flaxton acknowledges “technology is the enabler here”.

And if technology enables then technology companies are set to profit. The company I work for Fluidata; provides businesses with the internet, and opportunity in this sector is plentiful.

For any employee to work from home or ‘hotdesk’ a working internet connection is almost a prerequisite these days, and while in some cases existing home user connections can be harnessed for these purposes, the increase in demand of the connection will call for,  in others, something more reliable and business orientated. Remote workers also have a causative effect on the wider connectivity requirements of businesses. For example secure communication between sites will need to be achieved via some kind of wide area network, while head office sites will likely require more robust and reliable connections to cope with the influxes of incoming traffic.

Another potential benefactor of smarter working practices, and of a more general shift towards green friendly business practices, is video conference technology. With the ability to transmit real-time and life size video, this technology reduces work related travel, and as consequence saves on time, money and carbon emissions. Although this technology can be deployed over ISDN channels, in many cases the favoured method of deployment is over the internet. Once more, consideration of what kind of internet connection is required here, with low contented, symmetrical and reliable solutions most suited for the technologies usage requirements and mission critical nature.

With such developments likely to force buyers to pay greater diligence towards the finer points of contention, uptime guarantees and resilience, it’s probable that ISP’s who not only provide such solutions, but who also sell on delivery and reliability over headline speeds, will prove to be the more successful.

Flexible, innovative services, and crucially ones tailored towards flexible working should be particularly popular with disgruntled IT managers wanting to ease logistical headaches.

Discussing the contents of this article with my own boss (Fluidata MD, Piers Daniell) was rather illuminating. While not enamored by my cheeky suggestions of 3 pm Friday finishes, and appalled by office murmurings of ‘duvet days’ he clearly sees not only the business opportunities in such schemes but also the need for innovation and adaptation in our current working climate.

“There is no reason that the way we currently work is the right way, businesses can no longer assume that old fixed corporate practices and methods will be successful. Change and disruption can invoke fear, but in times that are fast looking unprecedented in an economic, political and social sense, more than ever companies need to not only ride with change, but to consciously provoke change and disruption through new technologies, practices and methods of working”

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