Thursday 25 March 2010

A public service for Wales

It's easy to attack the salaries of senior public servants – and the public sector seems at times to have a knack of providing easy targets. It's a lot harder to decide how much they really should be paid.

We certainly need competent people at the top of any organisation - but I've had enough experience in both the public and the private sectors to know that high salaries are absolutely no guarantee of competence - in either sector.

Comparisons with the private sector are pretty meaningless in a lot of cases, given the differing nature of the jobs requiring to be done. Whilst there is some movement between the sectors, I struggle to find any real evidence that people are bleeding from the public to the private sector in search of higher salaries. Not that they're not seeking higher salaries; it's more the case that the private sector wouldn't want a lot of them, for reasons to do with relevant experience or culture.

I don't really believe that there would be large numbers of senior public sector jobs left unfilled due to lack of applicants if the level of salaries hadn’t risen so rapidly in recent years. Finding the indians to fill the low-paid jobs has long been a problem, but I'm not aware that there's ever been that much of a problem finding the chiefs.

Yet, for all that, we've seen an almost relentless rise in the salaries of the chiefs in recent years, and the revelations this week about the growth in the number of high paid officials in the Welsh Government are part of that pattern.

One of the reasons given, i.e. so that "senior civil servants working for the Assembly could communicate on equal terms with their counterparts in Whitehall departments" astounded me at first sight. Then I thought about it, and actually, I can quite believe that some of the mandarins in Whitehall would disdain to talk to people on a lower grade than themselves. It quite fits with my perception of a lot that's wrong with the civil service culture in London.

That doesn't mean that increasing the status and salaries of civil servants in Wales is the right response, though! That amounts to an acceptance of the culture and an attempt to fall in with it, instead of challenging it.

Rather than fitting in with outdated status and privilege conscious Whitehall ways of working, Wales would be better off developing a public service structure of our own, encompassing central government, local government, and other public sector bodies such as the health service, and creating a new and different ethos of public service. And, of course, setting the top salaries in line with Welsh needs, rather than slavishly aping London.

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