Out of sight, out of mind, now out of work
I’m not sure exactly where the ‘back room’ is. But it must be big. If you’re reading this on a computer in an office, you might even be in the ‘back room’. And if you are – according to most politicians and media commentators – you are basically useless and easily dispensable. Feeling good about yourself?
In the budget this week, the NSW Government announced it would abolish 5000 public service jobs. Not any particular jobs, just a general cull of ‘head office and back room’ workers.
The terrible loss of steel-making jobs in the Illawarra drew widespread concern just a couple of weeks ago. But announcements of cuts to the public service are usually met with something between ‘whatever’ and ‘triple it!’. Unless it’s your job in the firing line, which is why public sector workers and their unions have been a bit toey lately.
Part of the problem is the notion of the ‘back room’ – that mythical and mysterious place filled with thousands of public sector workers whose jobs we’re not really sure about.
We know who the ‘frontline’ workers are – they’re out fighting fires, handcuffing criminals, nursing people back to health, protecting vulnerable kids, managing our national parks and keeping prisons in order. As a community, we rightly expect our frontline workers to be looked after and properly resourced.
But running the state to the standard we expect takes more than frontline workers.
There are a whole lot of public sector workers who don’t wear uniforms. They work on computers in offices, probably a bit like you.
The people whose jobs are threatened in this cull are:
- IT specialists, making sure the technology across our health, transport and justice systems function
- Civilian police staff, answering calls from the public and keeping track of incident reports freeing up uniformed police to be out on the beat
- Human resources professionals, making sure teachers, nurses and cops get paid so they come to work to look after your family
- Policy specialists, designing health and public safety programs
- Scientists, supporting our farming, fishing and forestry industries with the latest research.
… and the list goes on.
Many public service workers directly support frontline service delivery. No-one wants to see a cop stuck behind a desk in a sea of paperwork.
Another important function of the public service is quality control. While nurses are out on the wards, health department employees at head office are monitoring quality across the system, auditing hospital performance and providing the kinds of checks and balances we demand.
Survey after survey reveals that people trust the public over the private sector to run essential services like transport, water, prisons, hospitals and community services. That’s largely due to the accountability the public sector provides.
We might digest lots of hostile rhetoric about public servants as pen-pushing bureaucrats but as research by the Centre for Policy Development shows, we trust them.
We don’t yet know where the 5000 jobs in NSW are going to come from; the departments will fight that out.
What we do know is that you can’t cut jobs without cutting services.
Strong frontline service delivery doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it relies on strong public sector infrastructure: admin, IT, HR, policy, finance and research – all the so-called back room stuff.
Rather than cutting thousands of unspecified positions with the thud of a budget paper, governments should make their case for which jobs they consider excess and how they plan to maintain or improve services.
Public sector workers and the community who rely on public services deserve that.
John Cahill is General Secretary NSW Public Service Association and the National President of the Community and Public Sector Union
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