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Touchstone Survey Speaking up for Public Services

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Growing need among local communities in the face of diminishing resources means public sector organisations are expected to do more for less. A recent poll carried out for the TUC by the Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE) of over 2,000 public sector workers has found that the recession is piling pressure on the country's public services and public service workers. Cuts in budgets, services and jobs are widely expected, yet few are confident that these can be made without an adverse impact on services and the public.

The poll found that 70% think the public sector is becoming more important to the general public as a result of the recession, with almost all (92%) stating that the pressure on services has increased.

'People are becoming more dependent on public services as the recession is affecting so many aspects of their lives.'

'Keeping local people employed helps to maintain some economic stability.'

'Businesses and local residents are seeking greater support and initiatives from the public sector.'

'It's more vital than ever as an employer - fewer jobs means less tax means less buying power, and as things get tighter the public sector provides stability lacking elsewhere in the economy.'

More and more people look to local services such as debt counselling, business advice, housing and job search. Yet public service workers sense the public mood pulling in different directions. On the one hand, there is heightened scrutiny around the cost of public services and particularly public sector wages. The pressure is on more than ever to demonstrate value for taxpayers' money. But, on the other hand public sector workers sense a real fear and anxiety among the public that services they depend on may be cut.

'There is a national focus on the cost/value of the public sector, compounded by hardships felt by people in the private sector who have had major reductions in pensions, lost employment or are on reduced wages/hours.'

'It would rock public confidence if major cutbacks happened in the public service because of the recession'

'We need to provide care and support, signpost opportunities that might not have been considered, provide training, help develop employment opportunities; improve the environment so there is not a downward spiral in the confidence and aspirations of our communities.'

Most people in the sector (78%) see the role of public services changing, as the focus turns to helping people, businesses and communities respond to the recession. They see that the public sector is best placed to respond to these changing local needs, such as providing training and apprenticeship. There is also a need to plan for the future and economic recovery, in tackling local economic restructuring, environmental challenges and an ageing population. There is a general agreement, however, that the public sector cannot shift from its core responsibility of providing services to improve the quality of life - albeit with fewer resources.

Around half (52%) expected reductions in the services their organisations provide, with a large number also reporting ongoing pressure to find efficiency savings. Some expect that financial pressures will force public authorities to review services and put in place more stringent eligibility criteria. This may mean charging for services or more use of means-testing. For those working in local authorities, many fear that non-statutory services may be put under pressure.

'There are certainly inefficiencies in eg procurement processes and administration. Whether we can invest sufficiently to realise those efficiencies, and whether those areas of efficiency will deliver the required savings are much harder questions.'

'Efficiency savings mean that some areas of service have to take bigger cuts to protect those statutory areas of service delivery, therefore standards in these areas will fall'

'Efficiency savings have been made for the last 2 years. Further staff reductions will lead to a reduction in service provision and quality.'

'Care services are being cut severely by amending criteria for eligibility or by increasing charges.'

'Some things that have a short term efficiency saving actually have long-term consequences which are detrimental. Being clear about this is really important.'

The majority of public sector workers surveyed accepted that budget cuts were inevitable, but thought that budget cuts would damage services, particularly over the next three to five years. This would either affect quality or the number of services provided - or both.

'We are proposing to do it with minimal effect on service but with the magnitude of what is being proposed that is just impossible'

'Not sure it is a question of just quality. The scale of cuts faced will require some services/activities ceasing altogether.'

'Services have already been cut, but not made the savings. The future will see reduced quality of service with a more anxious /less secure workforce.'

'We always strive to maintain or improve quality of service year on year, regardless of pressures.'

The survey found that two thirds think that the way in which services are provided needs to change to respond to the recession, yet only a third were confident that their own organisation was well placed to respond to this pressure.

'We need to deliver the increased demand for our services delivery without increase in cost. No additional funding will be available.'

'We need to be more flexible, faster to react and need to delegate downward to empower those at the working face to make decisions, rather than requiring them to continually refer back upward.'

'We need to show the general public the effectiveness of the services and what we provide for the communities and the effects should this be withdrawn.'

'We need to increase efficiency and be seen to do so, to make services more personal and tailored, increase accountability.'

This could well be linked to another finding that that around half (51%) of respondents believed that contracts with external service providers make it costly or legally complex to respond to changing circumstances. While a significant number of people reported good partnership working with external contractors and flexibility within contractors, more expressed concern about the inability of contracts to be adapted.

'Currently contracts with external providers are long term and flexible. They depend on us but only if we have the funding.'

'External providers are far less flexible and want to be paid extra for extra tasks which were done automatically by the in-house providers before.'

'Commissioning, when done well, can bring the flexibility we need to be responsive, and engages much better with communities shaping services.'

'We have had contractors go bust meaning that the services they would have provided have to be tendered for again at extra time and cost as well as monies lost that have already been paid.'

The economic downturn has undoubtedly had an impact on workers' perceptions of job security in the public sector. Over half of the people surveyed said they felt anxious about their own job security, with many reporting redundancies and organisational restructuring within their own workplaces.

'It is distressing to read that the public sector is accused of being protected from the effects of the recession when your own employer has had to significantly reduce its workforce due to a financial squeeze. Even following an upturn, public spending is likely to be substantially cut, so while the private sector may be expanding, it is likely that local government will be contracting.'

'I am anxious, not from recession but outsourcing'

'I feel more anxious for the younger generation. Their prospects seem very bleak.'

SURVEY RESULTS

Do you think the role of the public sector is changing as a result of the recession?

Yes

78%

No

22%

In your view, is the public sector becoming more or less important to the general public as a result of the recession?

More

70%

Less

10%

Same

20%

Do you think pressure on services has increased as a result of the recession?

Yes

92%

No

8%

Is your particular service expected to reduce?

Yes

52%

No

29%

Don't know

19%

Do you feel there is room to make further efficiency savings without impacting on jobs and services?

Yes

41%

No

59%

Do you feel anxious about security of your employment?

Yes

59%

No

41%

Do you think cuts in budgets will mean the quality of the service/s you are responsible for is likely to decline in:

The next year

56%

Next 3 years

84%

Next 5 years

81%

Is your authority/service able to respond quickly to meet the demands of the recession?

Yes

36%

No

30%

Don't know

34%

Do contracts you have in place with external service providers make it costly or legally complex to respond to changing circumstances?

Yes

51%

No

49%

Do you think the way in which you provide services needs to change to respond to the recession?

Yes

67%

No

33%