Karen Wise reflects, this morning, on why there is so much administrative aggro in public sector HR. As an illustrative example she discusses the issue of employee start dates in the NHS. It may come as a surprise to those outside the public sector that something as simple as a start date can cause so much confusion but, believe me, it can.
In the NHS, we have a different “start” date depending on what we’re looking at.
- Their length of service in the NHS as a whole (not withstanding any break in service) is one date that we use – usually to calculate redundancy payments
- Their start date with any given Trust informs us of the level of employment rights an employee has.
- And their reckonable service? Well, that’s used to calculate how much annual leave entitlement etc that an employee is entitled to.
With me so far? Great.
There are similar dilemmas in local government, the civil service and government arm’s length bodies, though, in each context, the definitions described above by Karen are slightly different. (Come on, you didn’t think they’d be the same did you?)
At the root of this is the tension between centralism and localism which I’ve banged on about before. Successive governments have advocated local autonomy, freeing up local authorities, NHS Trusts and government agencies to do their own thing. Yet, at the same time, there is still this sense that the NHS, local government and the civil service are single organisations which should have some commonality.
So governments proclaim the virtues of local autonomy while, at the same time, demanding efficiency savings through shared services and the centralisation of procurement. The same contradiction means that local authorities, NHS Trusts and government agencies are stand-alone organisations….except when they’re not. We’ve never really decided whether we want our public bodies to be small and autonomous or parts of a single organisation. There are advantages and disadvantages in both models but trying to be localised and centralised at the same time has its drawbacks too. The result is the sort of administrative confusion described by Karen and there are a number of similar examples across the public sector.
Perhaps more surprising, though, are Karen’s stories about employees who have struggled to prove when they started their service with the NHS. People who have moved between NHS trusts, especially where those trusts have since been abolished or merged, can sometimes find that all traces of their previous records have been lost. This can mean loss of holiday and redundancy entitlement and, in the worst cases, pension rights.
Most people probably assume that, while the state may be inefficient in some areas, one of the things it is good at is keeping tabs on people. This image is fuelled by the ‘big brother’ fantasies of some libertarian commentators. The reality is somewhat less dramatic. True, the state gathers all sorts of information but it quite often loses it or fails to categorise it in any useful way. The fact that it can’t even be sure how long some of its employees have been in its service is evidence of that. The state is not a single entity. Even the NHS and the civil service aren’t really single entities, although they are in some respects…sort of. Confusing ain’t it?
In the late 1990s I was working on a number of government IT projects. We would get into endless discussions about who was an employee, how length of service should be defined, whether arms length bodies counted and if so which ones.
At around this time my wife and I went to see Enemy of the State. In the film, Will Smith’s character witnesses the murder of a congressman by rogue intelligence operatives, who then pursue him across America. Using sophisticated technology and the information it has built up about him over the years, the state is able to track his every move.
“Frightening isn’t it?” said my wife as we left the cinema.
“I wouldn’t worry,” I replied. “Our government isn’t quite that clever. At the moment, it’s not even sure who works for it.”