Are public sector employees disengaged?

A report published last week by PwC and Demos drew attention to the fragile state of employee morale in the public sector.  Quoting data from CIPD’s Employee Outlook survey, the report contrasted employee engagement in the public and private sectors.  According to the spring 2014 survey, 52% of employees in the voluntary sector were engaged (using CIPD’s index measure), 36% of private sector employees were engaged and just 30% of public sector employees were engaged.

The report also drew attention to the much larger gaps between public and private sector employees in their perceptions of senior management.  Trust and confidence in senior management, in particular, were much lower in the public sector with the report noting:  “The picture that emerges is of a public sector struggling to adapt to shrinking budgets, but also one that lacks the tools to get the best from the people working in it.”

The results of the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study also showed that public sector employees were unhappy with their lot.  Job satisfaction was lower in the public sector and there had been a sharp drop since 2004 in perceptions of job security, traditionally seen as a public sector strength.

There are plenty of potential explanations for reduced morale, engagement and job satisfaction in the public sector: cuts in budgets and staffing numbers; pay freezes and subsequent pay increases kept well below the rate of inflation; attacks by politicians and the media on ‘excessive’ salary levels, bonuses and severance packages; reductions in future benefits from ‘gold-plated’ pension schemes; changes in organisational structure and service delivery models, to name just a few of the more obvious candidates.

However, before rushing to any particular judgements about the future of the public sector, it is important to consider the available evidence in more detail and the particular conditions that apply in the public sector.
Employee engagement may be low in the public sector but employee engagement tends to be low in large organisations in general – and whereas 40% of private sector employees work in organisations with 500 or more employees, about 90% of public sector employees work in these organisations.  In fact, the latest Employee Outlook data for summer 2014 show that, if we look only at organisations with 500 or more employees, engagement rates in the public and private sectors are identical (36% engaged, 61% neutral, 3% disengaged).  The problems of generating engagement in large organisations – visibility of leaders, managing through the line and meaningful voice – may dominate those particular to the public sector.

On the other hand, organisation size does not by itself account for the gap in perceptions of senior management.  In organisations with 500 or more employees, 35% of private sector employees trusted senior managers, but the equivalent proportion was just 26% in the public sector.  Last year’s Megatrends report on trust suggested that this gap in trust had been persistent and offered some potential explanations – such as the constraints that public sector managers face in trying to manage the expectations of employees when their freedom of action is typically constrained greatly through reporting to a political leadership that takes the key decisions.

Nor is the public sector homogeneous.  Previous CIPD-sponsored research pointed to substantial and persistent differences in employee attitudes between different parts of the public sector, such as the NHS, central and local government, the police force and so on (see, for example, the discussion of employee attitudes in the public sector by Mike Emmott).  Each has distinct organisational cultures – including the extent to which decisions over budgets, terms and conditions and day-to-day operational issues are subject to political control or oversight.

Employee attitudes – and the choices that employees make about their future employment – will also depend on their labour market power.  A qualified healthcare professional prepared to consider employment options in the private sector or overseas has considerably more options than an administrative worker in central or local government located in parts of the UK where alternative job options offering similar terms and conditions are few and far between.

Our Manifesto for Work pointed out it is highly unlikely that the next government, whatever its political complexion, will have either the financial headroom or the political will to fund significant across-the-board increases in public sector labour costs.  Increases in staffing numbers or terms and conditions are likely, at best, to be targeted.  This therefore makes it more important that the next government has a strategy for the public sector workforce that is not just affordable but also coherent and consistent with its strategy for public service delivery.

In the coming months, we will be looking in more depth at the available evidence and exploring the implications for a public sector workforce strategy – recognising, of course, that views differ on the role the state should play in the economy and society and on how government goes about achieving its aims (for example, in terms of the role that private contractors might play in delivering public service).

Finally, the latest data for summer 2014 also provide one pointer to how employee engagement might be maintained or even improved in the public sector.  Again, looking just at employees in organisations with 500+ employees, equivalent proportions of employees in the public sector (83%) and the private sector (84%) said they understood their organisation’s core purpose.  However, the proportion who agreed that they were highly motivated by this core purpose was much higher in the public sector (57%) than the private sector (44%).  The public service ethos and a sense of making a contribution to something of value are clearly still important to many public sector employees.  Ways of working that enable employees to spend more of their time and energy on this core purpose – or, perhaps, even explaining more clearly how changes to job descriptions or service delivery models contribute to the core purpose – might thus reinforce employee engagement within continuing budget constraints. 

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

  • Anonymous

    Is it any wonder that morale is low in the public service?  But dont think that staff do not do a good job with little or no reward. We have seen staff numbers thrashed to a bare minimum with those who remain having to pick everything else up!  The casualties for us are those who are left!  We see public services dwindling and our clients have to take on more responsibility through the private sector for the services once provided by Local Governments.  We see those with mental health issues struggling, the elderly being asked to do more for themselves when they obviously cant.  Childrens centres closed when communities need and rely on them!  Staff who remain are scared for their futures and for the people they care about!  We are being forced to take on Agency staff which costs huge amounts out of already meagre budgets.  

    Staff are now asked to pay for their parking and car users schemes have been axed. Wage freezes and austerity has hit many of the staff and they now see themselves depending on welfare and food banks to get through!  

    We need good robust managers to manage, we need governments behind local government and the public services they provide and we need communities to support what is rightly theirs.

    What we don't need are consultants who do no good and cost a fortune and who we call them our pidgeons.  We don't need outsourcing for the sake of it and we have found to our cost and the publics often don't work and cost more in the long term!

    Maybe then staff morale will start to improve.

  • Redundancy, increased work loads and stress, pension and pay cuts (in real terms), office closures and relocations, Lean management, switch to call center working, withdrawal of family- friendly practices such as flexi time, stringent application of disciplinary policies resulting in significant increase in dismissals for absence, capability and performance, management bullying and victimisation, side-lining of the workers' voice via attacks on trade unions etc etc etc.

    No group of workers have experienced the downgrading of terms and conditions in the that public sector workers have and they had no hand in the financial collapse of 2008 but yet take all the consequences while the cash and champainge is flowing again in the City!  

  • Are public sector employees demotivated? – Well this one is.

    My 35 year long career in HR has been equally split between successive public and private employers. For the last eight years I have had my only taste of working for a local authority in London.

    With no pay rises for several years and a workload that has increased as the number of staff reporting to me reduced from four to one I would be rather odd if I were not demotivated.

    A management consultant whom I never met has had a report accepted by my employer that will lead to me and a number of my colleagues becoming redundant at the end of this financial year. I am 62.

    We live in curious times where the government is set on reducing the availability of public sector services because of political dogma. But if a seaside pier or a sporting event requires a subsidy then they are seen as beneficial.

    If I were advising a young HR specialist starting out on their career I would tell them that a few years in the public sector may give them some useful skills, but that they should move into the private sector at the earliest opportunity if their personal altruism is not stronger than their desire to own their own home and have a reasonable standard of living.

  • Anonymous

    Cuts in the number of services (local govt is responsible for approx 700); a workforce reducing in size; reductions in pay and benefits; an increase in demand for services; major reductions in income (in my last authority after £75m savings, a further £75m to find which represents almost 50% of controllable spend.  

    The toughest times ever.  Are staff engaged? That depends. Staff need to feel valued and this scenario makes that very difficult to achieve.  It can be done but it's not at all surprising if engagement dips.

    On the other hand, this scenario provides the opportunity to be really innovative and deliver real improvements in service.  For those empowered and able to really make a difference, this can provide real engagement (if not necessarily long term loyalty)

  • Anonymous

    Cuts in the number of services (local govt is responsible for approx 700); a workforce reducing in size; reductions in pay and benefits; an increase in demand for services; major reductions in income (in my last authority after £75m savings, a further £75m to find which represents almost 50% of controllable spend.  

    The toughest times ever.  Are staff engaged? That depends. Staff need to feel valued and this scenario makes that very difficult to achieve.  It can be done but it's not at all surprising if engagement dips.

    On the other hand, this scenario provides the opportunity to be innovative and deliver real improvements in service.  For those empowered and able to make a difference, this can provide true engagement (if not necessarily long term loyalty)

  • The comments above give a flavour of both the challenging conditions public sector workers have seen in the last few years and the impact this had had on many public sector workers.  It is important that this is shared and understood, including by the political parties that will determine the future of the public sector after the next election.  But the likelihood is that money will remain tight during the next Parliament and, without careful thought to what this means for the public sector workforce, it may end up as more of the same.  We want to engage public sector HR in a debate about how the public sector could be made a better place to work than it has been in recent times while still continuing to serve the public.

  • Mark, I enjoyed the blog and agree with your closing comments. Engagement is a big issue for all, but particularly problematic in the public sector. I have just submitted a paper discussing the links to discretionary effort and employee well-being. With as much as 50% of our effort being 'voluntary' it is without doubt that service levels will suffer if we do not get this right. HR professionals have a huge and important role to play in ensuring the executive maintains a focus on arguably their greatest asset.

  • Anonymous

    I really do not think it is a simple a question as stated. It is certainly not the Orwellian '4 legs good (Private) 2 legs bad (Public) views widely stated by the current Government. Given the Financial pressures and attacks on the Public scetor it is hardly surprising some areas are suffering.

    Interestingly outsource suppliers also seem unable to perform (or make a profit) as evidenced by Serco's recent departure from the NHS in Cornwall.

    Come on folks stop all the political clap trap and allow the public sector to develop services that benefit the public.

    While posting as Public Servants maybe MP's should set an example and adopt an approach rather different to the do as I say not as I do principles. They still get gold plated pensions, RPI uplifts I believe etc etc

  • In my LG employer, we don't seem to be struggling with the same engagement issues as elsewhere.  Whilst we have identified some areas where engagement could be stronger and are taking steps to try to understand and address this, overall we enjoy strong engagement in all areas.

    Perhaps this is related to our leadership's commendable efforts to keep compulsory (and, indeed, voluntary) redundancies to an absolute minimum; their decision to restructure our pay to a more equable and sustainable model in 2006 (painful, but widely accepted as necessary), and the political will that has seen us retain direct internal control of as many services as possible.

    Tough times lie ahead, no doubt.  And I have no illusions that we are a perfect or infallible employer, but the national picture - bad as it is - does not necessarily equate to every public sector body being in a state of high dudgeon and there are many continuing to do it right.