Essential public services face a crisis of capacity and we must make use of staff potential - Hilary Armstrong

Public services staff are essential – they educate our children, care for vulnerable people, and keep us safe.

But the workforce faces a crisis of capacity, skills, and recruitment. My committee has explored the challenges public services workforce faces, and sets out a plan to create a workforce that is fit for the future.

The House of Lords Public Services Committee has just published a new report on the public services workforce. We called it: Fit for the Future? Sadly, it is not.

The public service workforce is facing a crisis. Staff shortages are significant, and having a serious impact upon service users. Morale is very low, and employers are not doing enough to make public service careers attractive to prospective staff. There is considerable difficulty in recruiting. With an aging population, this vicious circle will get worse.

Picture: Andrey Popov/AdobeStock.

There are shortages all over: in teaching, health and care, prisons, local government. Public services are struggling to meet demand and we are beginning to see the impact of shortages and turnover on service users; including on vulnerable children, whose key workers are constantly changing.

As the UK population gets older, these shortages will worsen. We are facing a demographic crisis, where the demand for services will rise far faster than the working-age population.

The proportion of the population with multiple and complex needs will rise further, even as the labour market available will be smaller. This isn’t news, but we were disappointed to find that the Government doesn’t even have the hard data it needs to plan ahead.

We heard that as the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, working in some public services roles may simply become unaffordable. Some care workers, whose jobs can influence the quality of life of the most vulnerable people in our society, are paid very little. Ninety-six per cent of school support staff aren’t paid enough to cope with increasing prices.

But this isn’t the extent of the problem.

Many of the people delivering public services have been disempowered, and do not feel the work they do is recognised or valued.

We have developed recommendations which would, if implemented, make a substantial difference, and secure a more sustainable public services workforce for the future. These recommendations all have one thing in common: they urge flexibility.

Flexibility in deploying teams; flexibility in allowing them to make the decisions they are equipped to; flexibility in the use of technology and in external engagement; in what qualifications are needed and how they are accessed; and flexibility in how to retain the people the workforce will need for the future.

We saw this flexibility, and imagination most on a local level.

In Camden, a talent pool works with local residents with a deep knowledge of their communities, and an understanding of services, having been on the end of them: a fantastic pool of talent.

They help people write their CVs, and point them towards roles in public services.

These are powerful, diverse pipelines of talented future staff.

During the pandemic, Wigan Council redeployed some council staff to frontline roles, boosting capacity, understanding and connections across the workforce.

This approach, because it provides interest, enjoyment and fulfilment for teams, will be very positive for retention.

We need, urgently, to access the untapped potential of public services staff.

The committee met a Physician Associate, who could perform many of the tasks GPs take on.

Despite this, she was unable to prescribe medicine – delaying treatment for some health issues diagnosed while a GP’s opinion was sought.

This simply makes no sense.

Moreover, if she wanted to change career paths and become a GP, taking on more responsibilities, she would have to start from scratch – none of her valuable, eminently transferable experience would be recognised – and she would have to go tens of thousands of pounds in debt.

As a society, we also put unnecessary barriers in place for those wishing to qualify for particular roles.

Again, public sector employers, professional bodies, regulators, and universities should be far more flexible in how they recruit.

Medical degree apprenticeships are promising, as they allow people to qualify without debt and with the same level of expertise at the end of the process.

Alternative routes can also help enhance diversity: many groups are under-represented in the public services workforce. Surely the public service workforce should reflect the population it serves?

Our findings get to the heart of how the public sector can better attract, train, and retain the people we need to deliver services into the future. The challenge is substantial: the public sector will have to deliver the same or better outcomes with less labour available. It is time to start making big changes.

- Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top is Chair of the House of Lords Public Services Committee.