The folk at the Guardian have been having some fun with the government’s recently released public spending data. Among other things, they have discovered that the spending on agency staff went up by 65% after the recruitment freeze.
Well who’d have guessed it, eh?
This has happened after almost every recruitment freeze I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a few. I haven’t got time to grub around with the data but I wouldn’t be surprised if spending on consultants went up too, despite the government’s aim of reducing both consultant/contractor and agency spending.
As the HRD explained:
The idea of a recruitment freeze makes a number of assumptions, that all roles are equal, that all roles are interchangeable and that the right people will leave. And that just doesn’t happen. You either stick dogmatically to the freeze to the detriment of the service and the health and well-being of those that remain, or you have to exercise a degree of judgement. We became adept at renaming the freezes as slowdowns, restrictions even chills….that was my choice but no-one found it funny. Everyone has an argument about why their specific vacancy is “critical” and some poor sucker has to wade through the pile of requests and exercise the judgment of Solomon.
And if they’re still not allowed to recruit, they just go and get some temps in, either to do the jobs they are not allowed to fill, or to free up other staff to cover those jobs.
Like most public sector organisations and a lot of private ones, government departments tend to use headcount, rather than budgets, to monitor their resources over the year. A manager’s headcount gets more scrutiny than his budgets, so he’s far less likely to get into trouble for spending money on agency staff than for recruiting permanent or even fixed-term employees. So that’s what happens. Agency staff can be kept off the headcount stats so no-one notices until the end of the year when the bills are added up. True, this is being tightened up now and there is more month-by-month scrutiny of budgets than there used to be, but the mind-set, both of managers and of those monitoring them from on high is still that headcount is what counts.
So, if there is a recruitment freeze and you get to the point where you can’t meet your objectives, instead of incurring the wrath of your bosses by increasing headcount, you just pick up the phone to the agency and get some temps in. That, it seems, is what managers across the civil service have been doing for the last six months.