Is Happy New Year an oxymoron for those in public service?

If 2010 is going to be one of the most challenging periods for those involved with the public sector then 2011 is going to be a potential disaster.  With the election now looking like May – with the Prime Minister’s hint at an April Budget – the 2010-11 financial year may provide more protection than expected but this only means greater pain from April 2011 onward – and a pain that is likely to be unprecedented in terms of its severity and its impact.  It’s easier to grow a business – and we have done this incrementally in the state sector for more than a decade – but it is not easy when contraction has to be rapid.  Our communities don’t see the complexities; older people no longer able to use day centres or families and children who will find their libraries and sports centres closed don’t immediately see the link to the crisis in our financial markets but hold the local council responsible – which at one level is absolutely correct.  Who would want to be a democratically elected councillor over the next 5 years!

I still find it ironic that the public sector is cast as the ‘wicked witch’ with its large deficit and salaries (allegedly) increasing faster than those of the private sector.  But it wasn’t the public sector that was in the casino gambling on unquantifiable derivatives and creating false value!  It wasn’t the public sector that was lending money to people who could never meet the repayments and who then sold these loans on three or four times on the pretence that they were worth billions!  But it was the state that bailed out the banks and it was the state that put hundreds of millions back into the economy through quantitative easing to enable capital to be lent to businesses and to stimulate the economy.

But none of this means much when you are faced with significant budget reduction and you already have spent many years ‘salami-slicing’ to prevent service cuts that impact people who really do need services.  And it will be those councils who are brave and will make decisions that are ‘out of the box’ that are likely to best serve local people – but it will not be easy and it will not be without a lot of soul searching and facing up to public criticism.  And I raise a glass to every councillor in the land for they will need all the support possible over the forthcoming years as they will be making decisions that most did not enter public service to make!

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