The abolition of the Audit Commission came as a bit of a shock. The public sector will probably look back on the great 2010 wave of austerity and say ‘That was when it started’. The challenge for a modern public service manager is now to prepare their people for a sudden transition from work – whether the dissolution of an entire organisation or a radical downsizing.
There’s an opportunity for public sector managers to give their staff modern skills to help them and their communities maintain morale and self esteem, find work quicker and take advantage of the emerging big society. Much can be done for free. A conscientious manager might want to help his or her staff keep on doing public service while seeking other work. Some, more pragmatically might want to show that they can downsize and contribute to the big society. This means modernising the traditional approach to redundancy and leaving the public sector.
The following draws on my own experience of moving out of the public sector, keeping myself busy as occupational therapy while recovering from a serious chronic illness as well as years of effective community action on the ground and online in the spirit of the big society. As your public sector organisation prepares to downsize or close altogether try some of the following:
Deploy the skills that made your staff good public servants but in the local voluntary sector instead of the workplace. Reach out into the local community. As the organisation or work unit winds down get your staff out to community meetings, deploy people to help write bids, forms and annual reports for local community groups and charities. Get them involved in responding to local consultations, send them on behalf of local voluntary groups to those pesky daytime meetings the council keeps organising. Get your staff to set up new groups about things that have always bothered them. As you free up desk space invite local social enterprises to come in and base themselves in your office ‐ the marginal cost to you is nil, the benefit to them possibly large.
Hold meetings in the workplace where people talk about their voluntary work that they have done in the past and the new stuff they are getting stuck into. Every public organisation I have worked in has unsung community heroes at junior pay grades. The clerk running that community model railway line might have seemed humorous when everyone was working ‐ suddenly it looks like a good big society thing to be doing when seeking a job. Recycle office furniture and equipment through organisations like Greenworks.
Train your staff in community organising ‐ bring in UK Citizens or Involve or similar organisations who can train and motivate your people to understand and work with local power structures to get things changed in their community. For public servants this is usually like taking a duck to water ‐ they just need to be given permission.
Help your staff set up a simple websites about the areas in which you live or work ‐ there are hundreds of these around the country now. Just about everyone in your office can use word and outlook ‐ a simple website is easier and free. My company has a free guide online (via http://talkaboutlocal.org) ‐ or you can always bring us in to help.
Capture the story of your (former) workplace. A public sector institution has its own social history ‐ once the workforce dissipates that is lost. Look at the wonderful emerging site: http://www.retooled.com capturing people’s experience of redundancy at Longbridge. This is as easy to do on the web now and free ‐ all you need is a modern mobile phone to video people, a YouTube account and a free website from wordpress.com. Even better get someone to bring in a family video camera.
Get people talking online about what they were proud of, what has made a difference to people’s lives. Just because what your people did can’t be afforded any more doesn’t mean they can’t be proud of it and tell the world. It’s (very) hard to imagine now but you can bet that in ten years people will be making documentaries about the 1990s public sector workforce in the same way that they now make them on 1970s steel and shipbuilding.
Don’t let your corporate website die ‐ a link to a dead organisational website in your CV is about as useful as a picture of a derelict factory. Get the National Archives in to archive your site and retain a web link that your staff can link to in their Linkedin profiles and CVs. Get this done before you shut down and tell everyone what the new link will be. Future employers, maybe in a different part of the country need to be able to Google up the old workplace and get a feel for it.
An important factor in finding work is staying in touch with other people who are in work. If everyone you know is workless it’s harder to get out. There are a whole range of modern web things that managers can help their staff to do that are especially important for the public sector. The public sector’s highly secure, deeply conservative and often disappointing IT systems cut public sector staff off from the outside world, putting staff at a disadvantage in the modern job market.
Some simple skills can quickly and easily be taught by your staff to each other. Put a call out for some of your younger recruits ‐ the ones who complain about the IT the most and get them to drive the following:
Tell the unholy trinity of IT, security and HR people who have persistently blocked useful modern websites like Facebook and webmail to loosen up and allow the full range of social media networking sites on the office networks. If the organisation is preparing to downsize or close then the risk management policy has to change. The bizarre and arbitrary access restrictions put staff at a disadvantage when seeking work.
Help your staff establish their own presence online that Googles up and reflects well on them. Get everyone to Google the person that sits next to them and then talk about the result. That’s what potential employers will be doing. The tradition of being discreetly in the background in the public sector means that many public servants don’t google up at all ‐ for many years I actually prided myself in being invisible online. We need to get over this nonsense – the person in charge of British intelligence services (Alex Allen) has been running a Grateful Dead lyrics website since the early 1990s.
Organise phone number lists, email lists, facebook groups, linked in communities, meet up groups before you start laying people off. Anything to keep people in touch with each other their union and with you in case you need to rehire them.
Encourage staff to buy a simple small netbook (about £200) and a pay as you go 3G dongle to stay connected when on the move, rather than being out of contact electronically when not at home. Get staff to help each other set up email on their phone.
Linkedin is like Facebook for business people without the embarrassing photos ‐ get all staff to make profiles for themselves and critique each other s. Get people connecting to each other before they leave, make sure that their generic skills are properly reflected on Linkedin and that people recommend each other. This is more important today than a nicely printed CV.
Facebook (despite the photos) can be even more useful particularly because it connects you to people who you don’t currently work with, opening opportunity up much, much further. Again, more important than a printed CV.
Help people get modern email addresses. Most of your staff will have relied upon their email@example.com address for some years, using firstname.lastname@example.org for other family stuff and Amazon. Kittydaddy1967 is now their primary route to communicate formally ‐ so help them get another more serious sounding email address ‐ gmail is a very good bet coming with useful google docs, spreadsheets, basic webspace etc and its free and spam free too. If you are setting up a small business you can run it from there without paying Microsoft or Google a bean.
In the particular case of the Audit Commission, the open data movement would welcome with open arms the skills and insight of staff from the Audit Commission. Across the country a grass roots movement is springing up of people using newly released data on spend and service delivery to monitor the public sector. They were doing this before Eric Pickles put the ‘armchair auditor’ label on them. Why not invite them in for a seminar or two and see if your people can help?
It must be possible to deliver public sector downsizing in a way that avoids Charles Handy’s ’empty raincoat’ or perhaps ’empty pinstripe’ and does as much as possible to contribute to a big society. Hopefully these suggestions can start a debate. That’s enough suggestions for now – further constructive ideas are welcome in the comments.
Disclaimer: These views are my own. I was a civil servant for 15 years in a variety of central government departments and now run a web business ‘talk about local’ in Birmingham creating community websites in deprived areas funded by 4IP/Channel4 and Screen West Midlands. I have been heavily involved in community action in Kings Cross London since 2001 recently via www.kingscrossenvironment.com. The Guardian, the BBC and a range of on and offline publications have been kind enough to feature my work. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister were kind enough to invite me to their initial launch of the big society shortly after the coalition government was formed. Like others I have been impressed by their commitment in going on to launch it several times more so i assume it’s here to stay.
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