Recently, I've seen yet more reports of low morale in the public sector. And today CIPD reports that 52% of public sector staff experience excessive pressure, compared to a 42% average, which is bad enough! (it seems they don't want to use the 's' word but that's what it is; see HSE's definition of stress).
It's no surprise, for the reasons you're all familiar with. And there's more and more outsourcing of support services. These are tough times in the public sector, no doubt. But I can't help thinking that the public sector causes a lot of its own stress.
A major problem (causing both individual stress - especially high demands and low control - and organizational costs) is excessive and overbearing bureaucracy. Public sector managers and staff are working very hard, but much of what they do is is jumping through bureaucratic hoops and form filling, using impossibly complicated systems, to meet so-called performance indicators.
What's worse, there is a huge disincentive to be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial. The powers that be talk a good game about the big society and social enterprise, but the reality is that it's still much too difficult and time-consuming for many managers to even contemplate. The bureaucracy involved stifles any entrepreneurial spirit at birth. I've seen this happen with friends and colleagues who were initially motivated and enthusiastic about 'breaking free'.
Part of this British [bureaucracy] disease is public sector procurement. It's grown arms and legs, and on it's own takes up a huge proportion of the public sector budget. It's difficult to do business with the public sector unless you are a huge consultancy that can play the public sector procurement game. So the procurement process effectively discriminates against individuals and small companies coming up with cost-effective, flexible and innovative solutions (including from within!). Many experts I know who could help reduce stress and costs, but won't bother trying because they know they don't have a chance.
Procurement seems to cause as much stress for public sector managers themselves. At one time, we trusted local managers with local knowledge and expertise to take decisions about what they needed to get the job done (control issue again). But now they cannot move a muscle without going through hugely time-consuming processes. I've lost count of the number of times public sector managers have recounted stories to me of being refused permission to make a 'small purchase' because 'they are not on our approved list of suppliers'. This despite the fact that buying it 'from IKEA' was '75% cheaper'.
So yes, there are real and major challenges for the public sector, leading to low morale and 'excessive pressure'. But maybe we should really grasp the stress nettle, especially re control. How about making it really easy for local managers to come up with local solutions. How about making it genuinely attractive to set up social enterprises. How about utilising the huge amount of talent in our populations of experienced middle managers and support professionals. And most of all, let's take another look at the procurement industry. Couldn't we get rid of 'procurement' all together, and get back to local decision making? I know there would be risks, but I'm convinced would save billions at a stroke - and dramatically reduce stress both for public sector managers and those who provide them with services.
Business Psychologist, Alan Bradshaw, is a specialist in the fields of stress management and the management of wellbeing at work.