Life isn’t fair, and maybe that’s okay.
For years, I have heard it said that as public servants, we must ensure everything we do achieves fairness. And for years, this has left me confused.
I try to teach my children that life is about treating people with respect, dignity and valuing our individual and collective differences. But as I’ve progressed in my career as a public servant, I often feel as though I’ve entered into a world which tells you life is fair, or should be, and yet consistently uses processes which produce unfairness.
Let me take you through a very quick look at two areas of public service where I think the desire to create fairness has in fact done just the opposite: recruitment and procurement.
In the private sector, pay increases are awarded based on two things: how good you are at your job, and how good you are at negotiating. In the public sector, you may receive an inflationary pay increase for which you will have done nothing other than continue to be employed. Otherwise, if you want to progress financially, you just have to change jobs.
In my experience, public sector pay grades, while they aim to create transparency in the sector, have failed to allow for individual remuneration practices. Most public sector jobs fall within a “band” or “grade”, and each grade has its own salary range. With almost zero exceptions, a person starts at the bottom grade when they’re first recruited. As long as they meet the “person specification”, everything else about them is irrelevant in determining their pay.
This emphasis on fairness has created organisations that are unable to reward, and therefore make their staff feel valued. An additional symptom of this is staff progression. The public sector still holds the attainment of management status to be the true measure of career progression.
You can be an excellent accountant working for a local authority, at the top of your game, keeping yourself up to date, adding more training, knowledge and experience to your CV every year, and yet the only way for you to increase your take home pay is to take a managerial role. You may have none of the necessary skills to be a manager, yet you’ll know this is the only way to progress within pyramid organisations.
In my experience, recruitment practices in the public sector also leave much to be desired. I once read a job profile for a role within a prominent city council, which had no less than 107 responsibilities.
The level of detail given to each was so specific that the only person who could have met the criteria was the person already doing the job. This is a frequent feature of the civil service application process, which tries to create a fair and transparent hiring trajectory. But in reality, people will have wasted time, energy and worst of all, hope, thinking they might be in with a chance when the post is already earmarked for the internal candidate.
I recently looked at a vacant post and the candidate pack was 37 pages long. The success profiles application route, commonly used by the civil service, requires reading and digesting three different documents, all multiple pages in length. And yet, when I think about who is really running our political organisations, I wonder what level of scrutiny is directed towards them, either by the parties or by the electorate.
Have you read a political party manifesto lately? Have you seen the CV of your locally elected member of parliament? Most of us choose who to vote for based on a flyer, a picture, a handshake or a “good feeling”.
In other words, the recruitment processes of the civil service appear to hold ordinary civil servants to a higher standard than those who occupy the summit of power. Is a system where decision-makers are appointed on gut instinct, while officers are put through endless interviews, assessment centres and presentations, a “fair” one?
Government procurement bears many of the same flaws as government recruitment in this respect. Please do not think I am suggesting here a return to nepotism, bribery, or any of the “handshake agreements” of the past — absolutely not.
My point is more that what we public servants have created, with our tiers of transparency and audit trails, is far from a fair world. Candidates and suppliers spend valuable hours taking part in wasted procurement exercises, when the preferred supplier is already known to those who design the game.
We can’t say “We only want local suppliers”, so we say instead: “We only want them to travel five miles to work”. We can’t say: “We want to work with this particular play company”, so instead we say: “We only want to work with play companies that have worked with a specific author before”. The result is that only one supplier really stands a chance.
To be sure, there is progress in this area, and we’re seeing in some instances a more pragmatic procurement approach based on achieving best value for all. But in many practices, the odds are simply not stacked fairly, placing bidders on uneven footing.
And as I’ve alluded to already, I’m an advocate of fairness. I am teaching my children to be fair-minded towards others, just as I am trying to practise this in my own personal and professional life.
But the systems I’ve outlined in this article — systems that make every attempt to promote and produce a fair and just world — have in my experience created a Disneyfied narrative to sweeten a bitter pill.
“Happily ever after” isn’t what we should expect or demand, but public servants absolutely must strive to create a world of equal opportunity, fairness and transparency. Every public servant has a voice, and can use that voice to help improve their sector.
We all have a role to play in this. Each of us can choose whether to be the “innocent” bystander to unfairness in the public sector, or the protagonist willing to speak up about it. Which will you choose to be?