In the UK, a strong public service ethos has had enduring importance. “Wanting to serve the public” is a powerful motivator for those joining the sector.
But studying graduates who are joining local government, we find that new entrants believe that public service values are changing. They are challenged by the need to become more commercially-minded. They see a financial aspect to their sense of a public service ethos: either delivering value for money for citizens, or the absence of a profit motive.
At the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government, we are often asked to run development sessions on commerciality. If the aim of more commerciallym-inded public servants is increased value through better commissioning, procurement and contracting processes, then this makes sense. If more commercial common sense leads to reduced failure to meet demand and to more efficient services, with savings that can be plowed back into improved outcomes, then the balance between public service ethos and commerciality is right.
However, we find that the balance sometimes tips over into a focus on the commercial venture as the ultimate aim. One council — where poverty, air pollution, and obesity are three huge challenges — has just introduced parking charges for all the city parks. Where is the value, other than immediate revenue, in that decision?
Austerity is challenging the public service ethos, and resulting in destructive value. Public servants and politicians who entered public service to “do good” are now in the business of “do least harm”. A recent BBC Panorama program, which highlighted the pressures on social care, illustrated the anxiety and hopelessness felt by politicians and officers alike as they cut services to old and frail people in an effort to balance the books.
Risk aversion and a lack of trust between public servants and residents are also driving value out of the system. Personalization in social care, with its foundations of choice and control, is being eroded as public servants tighten their grip on how funds are spent. A survey last year found that nearly half of all councils are using pre-payment cards for people who hold personal budgets, rather than giving them funding directly. These cards restrict choice by banning expenditure on alcohol, gambling, dating or adult services, petrol, and video games. One in three councils stipulate that all spending must be deemed to comply with the individual’s care and support plan. How does a restrictive process such as this support the values of choice and control?
This chipping away at the public service ethos may be one of the reasons why new entrants are questioning whether this is the place in which they can make the most impact and add the most value. There is evidence emerging across developed countries that millennials, and the Gen Z following them into the workplace, feel that they can achieve more value for citizens by working in a social enterprise, through their own start-up, or through an NGO. The research we are doing into the Future of Public Service Leadership suggests that one of the most important things Gen Z look for in a leader is shared values: where these do not exist, they are willing to walk away.
Public Service Day on June 23 has come and gone. Has the public service ethos, sapped by commercialism, gone with it? Or can we retain the values to attract a new generation of public servants?