Self-hatred in the public sector

Well perhaps ‘self-hatred’ is a bit strong but a recent survey of managers by Roffey Park showed that those in the public sector had a particularly low opinion of themselves and their peers. The research costs thirty-five quid to buy but there is a handy summary at Personnel Today.

For example, only 4% of public sector managers said that under-performance was tackled ‘very well’ in their organisations, compared with 22% in the private services sector.

Similarly, just 6% of public sector managers reported that morale was high in their workplace, compared with 33% in the not-for-profit sector.

State-paid managers gave themselves a hiding on nine counts, including their ability to manage change, staff cynicism about values, the perception of their boards, frequency of political behaviour, and levels of bullying and bureaucracy. They also reported the lowest collective sense of purpose.

Now some people will simply respond to this by saying that managers in the public sector are just crap. But the ‘private-good; public bad’ mantra from the 1980s was always an over-simplification. I know people who have senior roles in the state sector and they are not stupid, lazy or unimaginative.

It’s a long time since I worked in the public sector and, I suppose, I was lucky enough to work there when there were exciting changes happening. The local authority in which I was an HR manager had taken up the challenge of competitive tendering in the early 1990s and was determined to win its contracts. This meant that everything was up for grabs. In a few years, we were able to change the culture and many of the ways of working in the organisation. HR was given free rein to introduce things like assessment centres and new approaches to performance management. It was a great time to be there.

That said, even then central government regulation was starting to creep in. Dissatisfied with the speed of market mechanisms for driving local government reform, the government began to use legislation, together with centralised finance, targets and accounting rules, which took away some of the freedom that individual authorities had to innovate. Seeing the way things were going, I got out.

It is only recently, in the course of consultancy assignments, that I have begun to work with the public sector again. Listening to senior managers in central and local government and the health service, I feel that my instincts were probably right. One NHS manager told me that the health service is faced with one new initiative a week from central government. These initiatives do not always apply to the whole NHS but each one will affect a part of it. A senior housing manager in local government explained to me that she spends a lot of time just trying to keep up with the latest edicts from central government and the wild fluctuations in Whitehall funding.

UMIST’s Cary Cooper has been telling us for years that a lack of control increases stress levels. Could the low morale among public sector managers be due to a lack of any sense of control? If you are restricted by centrally imposed regulation and have limited means of raising your own finance, your scope for innovation is not very wide. You are likely to feel more like an administrator and less like a manager or leader.

Sure, the government needs to ensure that public sector organisations are held accountable for the delivery of services and the wise use of taxpayers money. But controlling them to such an extent is unbelievably costly and saps the morale of those who are, supposedly, paid to lead these organisations.

Just before I left my job in local government, I asked my boss, “Who’s running this show? Is it us, or is it the government and the courts?”

He replied, “Well it certainly isn’t us?”

From talking to managers currently in the public sector, I would say that is even more true now than it was then.

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