Saturday, 3 July 2010

Why we need 'Austerity Charters'

A few weeks ago I was talking with some civil servants about the implications of the budgetary cuts to come. One matter that was concerning them was the impact on staff discipline. As one person put it succinctly "why should I seek to sack an underperforming member of my team, when I know that if I do, the then vacant post will be frozen. It is better to have 50% of one person than 100% of nobody".

Another possible result of the current circumstances will be that just when you need everyone to be thinking about how to innovate and do more with less, people will be more inclined to keep their heads down and play 'safe'. (I have blogged about this already here.)

There are probably many more examples of perverse & unfortunate consequences of the current resource regime in public service organisations. The question is: can anything be done about this? My proposal is that every public service organisation should develop and approve what I will label an 'Austerity Charter'

The purpose of these charters will be to make crystal clear the principles, policies and values that will underpin how decisions will be made about where and how the large reductions in expenditure being considered will be implemented. For example, one point might cover the issue above such that posts vacated as a result of disciplinary action will not necessarily remain frozen, might go some way towards alleviating the problems that might emerge otherwise. Another part of the charter might seek to clarify that decisions about job losses will not be influenced by what action a person takes to innovate better ways of providing a service.

I don't really know what would go in such an Austerity Charter. But I do know that it up to the organisations themselves to resolve and that this will be best done in as open and inclusive a way as possible. Trade unions and staff associations clearly have a role to play, as do other stakeholders. (You will not be surprised to know that I would favour a whole system approach to the development of such charters.)

Such charters probably already exist but in the various fragmented & suspicious minds of all those who are affected, be they people who are likely to be made redundant or those will have the task of making such decisions. Nobody will find this easy, and some will find the process over the coming months distressing and life changing.

With reference to transactional analysis, will the leaders of the organisations be 'adult' enough to agree, focus and make explicit how these austere measures will be implemented? Or are we moving into a time where not only will the decisions be made behind closed doors, but the way of making the decisions will also be kept secret and implicit? I believe the latter approach is likely to lead to more staff distress, more harm to citizen/customer service, more distraction, less innovation and, probably, more procrastination and sabotage.

What do you think?

Or has your organisation already produced an 'Austerity Charter'?

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