Norse nirvana

7 Apr 06
HELEN DISNEY | It is often argued that there is a fundamental difference between public and private sector workers.

It is often argued that there is a fundamental difference between public and private sector workers.

Public sector workers are motivated by vocation and a wider sense of civic purpose; the private sector is all about status and remuneration.

But is this really the case or are we all motivated by the same things - a balance between our values, quality of life and the need to pay the bills?

Testing the former theory, Chancellor Gordon Brown courted controversy in his latest Budget by awarding the lowest public sector pay deal for a decade, but also by phasing the rises. He pledged to deliver an average 2.25% increase.

He saved £47m by staggering salary rises for the first time since 1997 for consultants, civil servants, MPs, ministers and judges, and giving them just a 1% increase from April.

Lower-paid workers did best this time, with nurses’ rises being more generous than doctors’. They have benefited from substantial pay rises under the new consultants’ contract.

The nurses’ pay bill goes up by 2.5% but many staff will get more, because of reforms and progression through bands. And, earlier this year, teachers and the armed forces were awarded 3% rises.

Until now, the government has been largely generous towards the public sector when it comes to pay. The view that rates needed to rise, to make up for the shortfall of the Conservative years and to ‘revive’ the sector, allowed for consistent rises as well as improvements in other work-related benefits, such as pensions.

But, despite the cries of unfairness from unions and other representative bodies who claim this current deal will stymie public service reform, is motivation all about pay?

Certainly, in France, what motivates public sector workers seems to be job security rather than pay per se. The model of a ‘job for life’ with generous entitlements is fiercely defended, as the latest student protests go to show.

Meanwhile, a series of recent surveys of doctors conducted in the wake of strikes in Germany and Belgium suggest that there are other important factors creating dissatisfaction. Particular sources of concern - which can also be applied to nurses and teachers - include an overload of bureaucracy, too much political interference in doctor-patient relationships, long hours and a lack of respect for the profession.

Surely there is a limit to which pay can compensate for some of these problems. Many nurses, teachers and doctors leaving the public sector might not be paid vastly more in their future careers, but they gain greater professional autonomy and therefore a better quality of life and a greater sense of professional satisfaction - something that money can’t buy.

In Sweden, for example, nurses were at the forefront of reforms in the supply of health care in the Stockholm region, largely because they were able to take charge of their own shift patterns. Many, being mothers, were consequently better able to co-ordinate work with childcare.

Yet this would never have happened without structural reform. The Stockholm health care revolution made it possible for more private players to be engaged and, as a result, for many health care employees to start up on their own. These entrepreneurs played an important part in improving health and safety conditions and staff involvement, and also in introducing a new style of working.

The reforms created a viable job market for health care personnel. With many employers to choose from, nurses and other types of public sector workers were able to negotiate improved conditions of service. Start-up opportunities were an important motivating force. Nurses’ pay improvements outstripped the rest of Sweden’s healthcare sector by 50%. Perhaps not surprisingly, all union organisations in Sweden’s health care sector now support the process of reform from monopoly to diversity.

There are now 290 health care enterprises affiliated to the Swedish Association of Health Professionals. Chair Eva Fernvall, one of the strongest advocates of innovative thinking in health care, explains that they are owned and run by nurses, which goes to show how the job market has been transformed in the past decade.

In the UK, New Labour has already begun to make inroads into reforming the supply of health care and education but, if we are to continue to make the public sector attractive in a more competitive job market environment, then further reforms will be necessary.

Imagine a system in which reasonable pay could be combined with a high degree of professional autonomy, satisfied public service users and a minimum of political interference. Sounds like a pipedream, but if we are really serious about decent public services, we should remember that pay is only half the battle.

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