Journal Column – Vocation is the key to well-run public services

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Vocation, not remuneration, is the key to well-run public services


A few years ago I applied to be a Magistrate. It was, without doubt, the toughest selection and application process I’ve ever endured.  And quite rightly so, as Magistrates undertake a very important role in the country’s justice system.


Magistrates can set or deny bail, they issue police warrants and deal with licensing appeals. They try and sentence offenders and can send people to prison and those involved with the family courts can rule on child protection issues.  


I think it’s fair to say that the role of Magistrates is an extremely important one and the judgement and action of Magistrates has a very important role in society and a profound impact upon many people’s lives.  As such, it’s important that those who are selected and appointed as Magistrates are of the highest calibre and integrity.   


Despite such an important and responsible undertaking, Magistrates are not paid for the work they do. Magistrates do what they do out of a sense of duty to their local communities and society as a whole. A vocational calling, if you like.


In my view, when it comes to various roles in the public sector, be it doctors, nurses, teachers, civil servants or councillors, for example, those who chose them as a vocation tend to be better than those who just see it as a means to earn money.


Indeed, historically, the vast majority of people who entered the civil service did so out of a vocational ‘sense of duty’ rather than a route to excessive wealth. However, in recent times things have changed dramatically with senior public sector managers and civil servants now commanding massive remuneration packages. 


In researching this, I discovered that over 38,000 government workers are paid over £100,000 and over 9,000 paid more than the Prime Minister’s (PM) salary of £150,000. 


The NHS alone has over 6,500 people earning more than the PM and the average university vice chancellor now earns more than £250,000 per year.  I’m sure being the Vice Chancellor of even a mediocre university is no picnic, but is it really so much more difficult or demanding than running the entire country that it warrants a £100,000 a year more pay than that of the PM?


It’s no different in local government either. The number of council chiefs on £100,000 or more is around 2,500 with over 600 pocketing at least £150,000 and a further 28 with bumper pay packets exceeding £250,000.


These breath-taking salaries could be almost tolerable if we were getting well managed and cost effective public services, but the simple fact is we aren’t.  


It was recently reported that a builder with a forged CV spent 12 years running several NHS trusts to the dismay and anger of the public sector mandarins when rumbled.  However, contrary to their protestations many have actually voiced their contempt for these civil service mandarins.  It’s my own view, that for years, the public sector operates in a culture of unaccountable cronyism.  So perhaps no wonder a bloke with a bit of common-sense, drive and gumption was able to whip a few NHS trusts into shape despite having no formal qualifications.


Whenever challenged, these senior civil servants have defend their colossal pay with the clichéd mantra that to attract and retain the best executives they need such generous remuneration packages and gold-plated pensions. However, government departments such as; International Development, Defence, Health, Education, Transport, Treasury, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, for example, all have track records of monumental waste and inefficiency that has cost the taxpayer many billions of pounds and with the likes of Health, lives too.   


Many now believe the widespread incompetence of the civil service is the principle reason we are in the mess we are.  Until now they have largely been able to hide their inability from the public. However, the corona pandemic changed that and now we are seeing first hand just how utterly inept many of them are.


For example, when it came for Public Health England and the education quango Ofqual to deliver during this pandemic and prove their worth, they both spectacularly failed. 


The country can no longer afford, operationally or financially, a public sector run and managed in its current form. If the government wants to regain the respect and trust of the public it needs to rip up the civil service from the top down. The current pandemic crisis offers a golden opportunity to usher in a new system of public sector employment and recruitment along with a culture change to recruitment of staff with a vocational incentive rather than one of financial gain.  New employment contracts should be issued to all senior civil servants with no public servant earning more than the PM and a robust process for accountability in place. I have no doubt such a move would be resisted. Well, to those mandarins whose priority is financial gain and job protection I say go take your executive skills and ply them in the private sector and leave the job of delivering a first class public sector to people whose priority is providing and delivering first class public services for the benefit of all. They will have the gumption to achieve and not be shackled with an idle, risk averse, filibustering, self-protectionist mind-set. 


This column was first published in the Newcastle Journal on the 3rd of September 2020