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George Osborne’s spending review risks creating a public service diaspora

George Osborne detailing some of the cuts to come. PA / PA Wire/Press Association Images

The public sector has been shrinking ever since Margaret Thatcher’s day. The major parties’ general election pledges offered little reason to expect a dramatic reversal of this trend; George Osborne’s post-election budget hammered home as much with predictable ruthlessness – and now the government’s £20 billion of cuts spending review has delivered yet another exclamation point.

Earlier this month the chancellor wasn’t content merely to endorse the Office for Budgetary Responsibility’s projection of an 800,000 fall in public sector jobs between 2013 and 2018. He also capped pay rises at 1% for the next four years. The message was clear: public sector staff remain both too numerous and too well paid. Now further blows are set to rain down with unprotected Whitehall departments expected to come up with savings plans of 25% and 40% of their budgets.

This reflects the extent to which certain ideas have become ingrained. The dominant narrative is that the welfare state has grown bloated, that social security is synonymous with sponging, that the NHS as we once knew it is all but finished and that spiralling privatisation alone offers the answer to myriad ills.

Thus the resolve to finish what Thatcher started grows ever more fervent and unyielding. This government may well deliver the coup de grace – although it’s worth remembering that even the New Labour project embraced many of the facets of this neoliberal approach to economics – and set in train a good number of the reforms being set out today.

We can debate the nuances and niceties all we like, but what’s beyond dispute is that the UK is witnessing its biggest cull of public sector jobs in half a century. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of workers face making the transition to the private sector.

Privatisation began in earnest in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. Dutch National Archives, CC BY-SA

Chaotic transition

What’s also beyond dispute is that this transition is going badly. The Guardian highlighted as much just a few weeks before the election in a disturbing article about the state of the probation service.

Around 70% of probation work has been outsourced to private companies and charities, with the remainder staying within the public sector under the aegis of a new National Probation Service. Staff have been split between the NPS and “community rehabilitation companies”, the latter operating on payment-by-results contracts.

The outcome: chaos. As the Guardian’s report revealed, employees on both sides now complain of division, tension and confused hierarchies. One veteran probation officer told how a management discussion revolved around whose tea and coffee should go into which cupboard. Information flow is drying up. Knowledge sharing is apparently frowned upon. In the words of one interviewee, a “huge demarcation” has emerged.

Public sector diaspora

Such is the dramatic and profound impact of these reforms that I suggest we might see it as a public sector diaspora. I explore this in my latest research, which stems from a number of studies of cultural and ethnic mass migrants, often in the context of turmoil, war and suffering – a literature that brings to light not only the journeys and transitions that people make but how their identities and cultures can be transformed.

This is reflected in the public service context by the mass migration of public employees and cultures to the new private sector landscape. While the Guardian article exposed the problem in the probation service, my study focused on arguably the most contentious arena of all: the NHS.

Cuts to the public sector have continued in the face of protest. Sheila/flickr, CC BY-NC

I analysed the relocation of NHS employees to private healthcare providers, observing and interviewing staff two months prior to, and up to a year after, their arrival in the private sector. What I found was the public sector diaspora in full effect.

Some employees felt welcomed by their new environment; others found it hostile. Some attempted to integrate; others tried to recreate what they had known previously. Some adapted well; others struggled. Some saw an opportunity for new beginnings; others just wanted to go back.

These responses are typical of diasporas in the original sense of the term – that is, those that have left their homeland and seek to carve out a new life in a radically different environment. Some members of a diaspora are privileged because of their knowledge or status; others are treated much less fairly and favourably.

If such responses are rife in the probation service and the NHS then we can reasonably expect them to be prevalent elsewhere. Social care, free schools, the Royal Mail – as Osborne has made plain, the public sector diaspora will be far-reaching across the public sector.

Overcoming the challenge

Encouragingly, history shows us the challenges that diasporas customarily face can be overcome. Assimilation is sometimes not only achievable but undeniably beneficial. Yet my research, like the stories related by the probation officers who spoke to the Guardian, suggests this isn’t happening.

So what can we do? We first need to recognise what the private sector might learn from the public sector. We hear a great deal about what public sector workers should do to acclimatise, but it’s time to think more about what the private sector should do to accommodate them. This migratory public sector workforce brings with it knowledge, skills and values that can enrich the private sector and temper the harsh realities of market commerce. Yet, at the same time, these workers might not fully appreciate – or be supported to help them deal with – the harsh realities of the market. What seems common sense for the entrepreneur or business leaders can be alien to those trained and experienced in the public sector.

We also have to escape the idea of staff being “parachuted in”. Instead of overseeing the creation – even if it’s unwitting – of a huge demarcation between the private and public system, we should be aiming for the most gradual and constructive integration conceivable.

The fact is that little good can come of this increasingly remorseless exodus for as long as those who are forced to leave the public sector are made to feel unwelcome and incompatible in its ever-distending private counterpart. If the aim is to genuinely annihilate the public sector, to visit upon it a destruction so complete that not a meaningful vestige remains, this singular lack of accommodation and understanding may well prove to be the final blow.

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