The view from frontline professionals

The State of the State

Frontline public sector professionals do some of the most vital and challenging jobs in our society. Whether working in the NHS, police, fire and rescue, transport, social care or in other public-facing roles, they support our day-to-day lives, often in the most challenging circumstances.

For citizens, these professionals define their experience of public services. For leaders in government and across the sector, the frontline is where their decisions on resources, structures, priorities and targets are put to the test. That’s why understanding the frontline is so important to running the public sector – and why this year’s State of the State sets out to capture its thinking.

The public service ethos is thriving and the UK remains a global leader…for now

Frontline public sector professionals are immensely proud of what they do. Most of our crowd were attracted to their jobs for their social purpose and the opportunity to help people, whilst seeing good pensions and job security as secondary benefits. They were split down the middle on whether or not they were paid fairly for what they do.

Seventy per cent of our crowd told us that the UK is a global leader in delivering public services, largely because of our public health and education systems – but some felt Brexit and austerity may have eroded our public sector’s international standing.

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"Our public sector is and was the benchmark for the world."

"The NHS is better than anything else out there."

"The amount and level of service is unbelievable given the comparatively low price we pay in taxes."

"We have been a leader but public services have been deteriorating due to a lack of funding."

"The UK is in a mess due to Brexit and I think a lot of faith has been lost in the UK as a whole."

Morale is high but many frontline professionals feel overworked

Two-thirds of our crowd described themselves as motivated at work, citing the opportunity to help others and the varied challenges they face as typical reasons for job satisfaction. Just under a fifth described themselves as demotivated, saying that funding reductions, staff shortfalls and a lack of pay rises had increased pressure on them.

Some 85 per cent of the crowd told us that austerity has affected the public. They gave a variety of reasons why but the consistent themes were reductions in the quality and scope of services.

Almost three-quarters of our crowd said that they regularly or sometimes work unpaid hours, and just over half reported feeling overworked or stressed. When we dug deeper into how their jobs had changed in recent years, the crowd’s responses were almost universally negative. Most said they faced greater demands, expectations and responsibilities with fewer resources and fewer colleagues. And in this context, many complained that they had not received a pay rise in some time.

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"I love my job and the challenges it involves."

"I am passionate about it and everyday is another day to help."

"I like to make a difference to peoples’ lives."

"Lack of funding is impacting services and putting unrealistic pressures on staff."

"People are expected to pick up work from people who have left and not been replaced."

Public sector workers have a stoic view of their technology and physical workspaces

Our public sector crowd appeared to have a stoic, uncomplaining view of the technology they use and their physical workspaces.

Two-thirds said they have the right technology to do their job – until we asked whether it has any limitations. At that point, much of the crowd told us about slow, out-of-date hardware that crashes regularly and disrupts their work. Participants from schools said there were insufficient laptops for pupils. Across the public sector, participants told us that staff training in the use of their technology, as well as IT support, was not always adequate.

Nearly two-thirds of the crowd said they use their own, personal devices for work. Many told us that their own laptops or desktops were better than those provided by their employer, and others said they used their own smartphones for calls, web access or checking emails.

Similarly, three-quarters of our crowd were satisfied with their workplace, but described old, run-down buildings in need of modernisation. Several simply said that their environment did its job and one added that with a desktop, printer and coffee machine, he was ‘sorted’.

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"Our system is always slow and crashing."

"The IT support is abysmal and the computer systems are always breaking down."

"Systems will often go offline so we can’t even access customer records."

"Buildings are old, dark and dingy so decoration and modernisation are needed."

"The building is getting old and there’s no money to improve it."

Paperwork is the curse of the frontline – could automation be the answer?

Our frontline public sector crowd complained about paperwork time and time again during our crowd conversation. They told us that it stops them spending time with the public and leaves them overworked. They also said it had become an increasing burden over time.

When we asked what could alleviate that burden, the most common response was that more staff would help. However, when we later explored views on automation, some of the crowd vaunted the potential for artificial intelligence to free up their time from administrative duties. As the crowd discussed automation further, the comment voted most popular was that investing in technology could make jobs easier and more efficient. Our crowd was acutely aware that the interaction which characterises many of their roles is uniquely human – but might in the future be better supported by technology.

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"There’s lots of repetitive paperwork and filling in multiple forms for the same thing."

"I think that some sort of AI is going to become the norm in the future but people still like the human touch."

"The only place it would work in my workplace is the paperwork. You can't get a robot to police the streets."

"Robots would not provide the personal interaction needed with children."

"The human touch can’t be beaten."

Tablets are the frontline’s most wanted technology

One element of technology was raised repeatedly by the crowd as an opportunity for more productive working: mobile. Some said mobile devices – both smartphones and tablets – were already supporting their work, while others said they would help them be more productive. The technology comments rated most popular by our crowd called for mobile devices for field, home and remote workers.

There was a particularly strong consensus among our crowd that tablets would be a significant boost to productivity on the frontline. Many said that their portability would allow them to take notes with patients, clients or pupils in real-time, reducing their administrative burden. Others told us that they could envisage work-specific apps to track vehicles, for example, while some simply wanted to uses tablets for easy access to email and other online tasks.

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"I can read emails on the go and use the camera on there."

"Can complete paperwork at the incident."

"Could enter data and complete paperwork online rather than on paper."

"You can carry them to different departments."

"Could be used for remote recording of patient notes on the move."

The frontline wants its leadership to better understand their challenges

Our crowd had a mixed view of how their organisation was managed. The most popular comment was that their management is “overly bureaucratic” while other comments spanned the spectrum from “terrible” to “good leadership”.

A common theme from the crowd was that their managers did not fully appreciate the challenges they face at the frontline. Of course, that may well be true vice versa although some acknowledged their leadership was doing well in a difficult financial environment.

More positively, frontline workers do not feel constrained or stifled by their managers – almost three-quarters said that they have the autonomy they need to do their job.

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"There are too many managers with no clue what is happening down the ladder."

"[Managers] have no real idea of what it’s like to be at the chalk face."

"Our management team does a fine job considering the financial constraints."

"Management is out of touch."

"Managers don’t know how to do the job themselves."

On balance, the public sector frontline is optimistic for the future

Our crowd was split in its positivity for the future or public services, with 55 per cent optimistic and 45 pessimistic for the years ahead.

We explored why, and found that optimism in the crowd tended to be driven by a belief in greater investment on the horizon, confidence that improvements will continue and faith in the commitment and public sector ethos of the frontline workforce.

Conversely, several of our crowd’s self-reported pessimists told us they expected budget cuts to continue, and many told us that Brexit created a sense of uncertainty in the short and medium term. Digging deeper, the crowd’s concerns over leaving the EU were that it could lead to lower public spending – and therefore reduced budgets for public services – as well as exacerbate existing staff shortages.

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"Recently there seems to be more funding going where it’s needed."

"I believe in our NHS and staff are the beating heart that will keep it going."

"There are lots of opportunities for change with improvements in technology."

"I fear for the future and I only see further cutbacks."

"I think because of Brexit there will be less funding for the NHS and the public sector overall."

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