Polls and Public Servants

By Harvey, A. D. | Contemporary Review, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Polls and Public Servants


Harvey, A. D., Contemporary Review


IT is now evident that there is a stage in the growth of the public services when they cease to be a mechanism for providing services to the public and become a mechanism for providing jobs for public servants. It is also evident that Great Britain arrived at this stage some time ago and that senior government and municipal officials now constitute a new feudal aristocracy, recruited by processes from which most people are excluded, bound together by codes of loyalty which only its members subscribe to, and monopolizing the right to make all of the key decisions that shape the lives of those who provide their better than average incomes and pensions. Indeed, the Coalition Government's attempt to lower the cost of these pensions has been a source of controversy throughout November and culminated in a strike at the end of the month.

While almost all public employees are distinguished from their fellow citizens by being guaranteed an inflation-proof retirement pension, it is only a minority who enjoy the full benefits of the public service culture. Wage dispersion, that is, the gap between the incomes of the best-paid and the worst-paid in the same organization, is more evident in the public sector than in the private. Though the most staggering instances of wage dispersion are in state-sponsored private cartels such as the big oil companies, for every private organization where wage dispersion is observable, there are three or four public ones. The main function of capitalism in Britain today is to throw up a handful of super-rich bosses whose income can be used to justify paying Quango heads and senior local government officials more than the Prime Minister.

The basis of the relationship between the overpaid senior officials and the often quite lowly-paid junior officials is not that the latter have a chance of becoming the former: their career tracks are demarcated from the outset. Public sector hierarchies never consist of equal gradations according to age, experience, acquired skills or formal qualifications; those destined for the top are promoted on a different basis from those destined to be marooned two-thirds of the way down, and formal education and experience have much less to do with which category one falls into than arcane factors of the sort that inevitably prevail where ruling cliques recruit themselves by co-option. The senior librarian who makes an outstanding success of running a large public library in a city centre has no chance of becoming Director of Leisure Services at the Town Hall, an inspirational social worker whose commitment and imagination energizes his/her colleagues has no chance of becoming Director of Children's Services: there are too many Assistants to Assistant-Directors waiting their turn. What holds together the world of the junior public official who has to deal with the public and the senior public official who has to deal only with other senior public officials and the media is that the latter covers up for the former. The junior official harasses and short-changes the public and the senior official deals with the paper-work showing that in the twentieth year in succession performance targets have been exceeded (and of course collects a bonus). The senior officials also harass the junior officials - there are so many of them, and plenty more people who want their jobs - because harassment is a key characteristic of the public service ethic. Public servants have to be seen to do something, and the only way they can interact energetically with the public without actually assisting them, is to make their lives more uncomfortable.

It seems to be a rule that the more numerous public servants become the lower the standard of the service they provide. Perhaps we might call this Harvey's Law.

It is the poor - people entitled to state benefits - who get the worst of the harassment, the repetitive form-filling, the intrusive inspections, the deliberate misinformation, the insulting delays. …

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