The following is from 'Public Service on the Brink', which describes the denigration and undermining of public services and the public service ethos in the UK. This edited extract is taken from the chapter 'Saving Public Services' by Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). (Public Service on the Brink, 2012, ed. Jenny Manson, Imprint Academic.)
In the 21 years I worked in the DHSS it changed out of all recognition, but it has changed even more violently now.
It would be dishonest of me not to admit that the offices were a bit grotty looking when I started. People took a ticket, like at a supermarket deli counter, but our job was to help. Whether it was income support or sickness benefit, we served everyone and dealt with their issues. Now there are different ‘business streams’ and you have to have an appointment just to get in the office. If not you’re directed to a call centre. We had all services under one roof but now they only deal with Jobseeker’s Allowance.
It might sound ironic that I favour the grotty offices of old and regret the business-speak that pervades the department today, when I describe the supermarket deli-style ticket system of old. But it is not necessarily the visual surroundings that define the system: it is the ideology behind it. Jobcentres are indisputably much nicer looking offices now, but there was a better system before and a better service.
How can I relate this to you—perhaps a reader who has never worked in or had to visit a jobcentre? Think about a guest house versus a modern large hotel. The guest house might be a bit twee and the decor a bit old-fashioned, but there’s a warm welcome and a homeliness about it. Modern large hotels with their spacious and ultra- modern glass fronted and ceilinged arboreal lobbies might look better superficially, but there is something mass-produced, cold and remote about them. You are dealt with as a customer, not a guest (a fellow human being).
I left in 2000 when I was elected General Secretary of my union, the PCS, but I regularly meet people I used to work with and they tell me, ‘There’s never been a worse time and it’s getting worse’. The management is more hardline, it’s all about quantity not quality, which saps morale when you are being forced to fail to deliver the service you want to provide to people.
When the DSS (the Department for Social Security which took over from the DHSS in 1988) became the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) the entire focus changed from welfare in the wide sense— people’s health and social security—to work. The whole focus was about getting people into work, accompanied by a plethora of targets. No one is against getting people into work, but that became the sole focus and with it came more conditionality. And as the post-finance sector crash occurred in 2008 there were harrowing echoes of the 1980s, as against a backdrop of rising unemployment a government, this time Labour, sought to blame the victims for the government’s own economic mismanagement and absence of a labour market policy.
The direction of travel was now becoming very clear and it impacted on the job. Staff now have much less discretion to deal with people than when I worked there.
Call centres, known as jobcentre contact centres, are a new horror both for the public and our members working there. They are the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the 21st century. People’s toilet breaks are monitored, logged and time-limited. This is the 21st century, working for the government. It may not be a factory or a steel foundry, but they’re very difficult jobs, low paid, and oppressive: the turnover rates are huge.
The advent of call centres has meant the disempowerment of staff is complete, and it’s a much less personalised service for the public too. Staff are tapped on the shoulder if they take more than four and a half minutes on a single call. If they do so too often they can be disciplined. Remember the people on the other end of the line might have learning difficulties, have poor hearing, or have English as a second language. It is a far cry from my experiences, when we took as long as it took—that might be two or three minutes if the enquiry was simple but it might be half an hour or more.
As a union we are often accused or derided for representing ‘producer-interest’, but our members care about the services they provide. Their producer interest goes beyond their own pay, pensions or terms and conditions. While those things are important […] it is ludicrous to assume that people who have chosen to work in the public sector are self-interested. These are people working with and providing services for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. No one can leave their workplace content at the end of their working day if they feel they have not done the best they can by those people.
In 2011 our members helped expose a new government target for benefit processors to meet: the number of claimants they should recommend for sanction. At first the minister denied the target existed and said the allegation it did was ‘claptrap’. Within two days, he was publicly scrapping the target.
That same year our members working in contact centres took industrial action, fed up at the way they were being treated and frustrated because they were unable to deal with claimants in the way they would like. The situation is terrible, enquiries are left unanswered and desperate people virtually hung up on to satisfy an arbitrary target.
The dispute is ongoing as I write, but the tragedy continues to unfold in new and devastating ways. The government is now proposing that all benefit claims will be made and processed through online accounts over the web. According to the 2009 Digital Britain report, 10 million adults in the UK have never used the internet. I do not know for sure but I believe it’s a fair assumption that those people will disproportionately be the people who might need welfare.
To purchase ‘Public Service on the Brink’ or to contact Imprint Academic, please visit http://www.imprint-academic.com/brink