Big Society: big trouble for public sector workers?

In recent weeks, we’ve seen the Prime Minister fiercely defending his Big Society project against criticisms that it is just a ‘cover’ for spending cuts. Mr Cameron’s claim is that the initiative is aimed at building what...

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In recent weeks, we’ve seen the Prime Minister fiercely defending his Big Society project against criticisms that it is just a ‘cover’ for spending cuts. Mr Cameron’s claim is that the initiative is aimed at building what he calls a ‘stronger, bigger society’ to build a more responsible Britain by opening up billions of pounds worth of government contracts.

It seems that by setting out plans which will ‘presume’ that private (and voluntary groups, it should be noted) will run almost every kind of public service, the Prime Minister is putting his trust, to a large extent in the private sector to deliver increased efficiency at a reduced cost to the taxpayer, with the outsourcing community set to benefit more than most as a result. But how will this work in practical terms?

The Office for Budgetary Responsibility has predicted that as many as 330,000 jobs could be lost in the public sector, by 2015 as a result of the spending cuts. Back in October, the government insisted that it had planned to ‘facilitate a movement of jobs from the public sector to the private sector’, taking steps to ensure that the transition was a smooth one.

However, considerable doubt has been cast upon this plan after a recent survey of more than 500 companies in the private sector found that over half were unwilling to take on public sector workers, while 52% believed that public sector workers were ill-equipped to work in a commercial setting. Furthermore, 75% of these companies claimed that they couldn’t be sure that there would be enough jobs available to compensate for those lost in the public sector.

So where does this leave us? Can a solution be found that pleases everyone? It seems unlikely - even though the private sector is continuing to generate new jobs, it’s clear that there is no jobs boom on the horizon to offer a quick fix solution to this conundrum. Public sector organisations cannot afford - literally, in some cases - to simply choose partners which safeguard more jobs for existing workers, and it’s clear that any supplier brought in to supply services to the public sector must be done so on the basis of the value they can add.

There also needs to be a greater acceptance of the ways in which public sector workers can add value in the private sector. Of course, there will be cultural differences between working in the private and public sectors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will not be able to adapt to working in a new environment.

Perhaps what we need above all is for the government to take a more active role in equipping public sector workers to manage outsourcing projects? By training them in a broader set of skills, public sector workers will be more prepared for the transition into the private sector, and more suitable for the jobs that may exist there.

One thing’s certain - if we are to look back in the years to come and see the Big Society initiative as a big success, then it will be important to have everyone - in both the public and private sector - pulling in the same direction.

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