Top public sector jobs – the truth?

Posted on: January 19th, 2016

Chief Executive, HM Revenue and Customs

Following the decision of the present incumbent to step down from her post applications are invited for the role of Chief Executive, HM Revenue and Customs. Applications will be particularly welcome from those currently working in the private sector.

The work of HMRC is of critical importance to the well-being of the nation. As such the post holder will find him or herself subject to intense and unrelenting public scrutiny, totally unrealistic expectations, hostile and frequently uninformed media criticism, much of it of a highly personal nature, and sustained abuse from members of the Public Accounts and other Parliamentary committees. Despite being outwardly supportive Ministers are likely to continue to demand deep and largely arbitrary resource reductions but will be highly unlikely to accept responsibility for any resultant organisational failures. When things go wrong, as they assuredly will at some stage however dedicated, professional and hard-working you are, you will almost certainly be left to carry the can.

In return the reward package that you will be offered will be a fraction of what you could earn for roles of similar size and responsibility in the private sector with intense hostile public scrutiny of any bonus, expense or pension payments that you receive. Appointment will be for three years in the first instance by the end of which you may well see your reputation irretrievably damaged. Re-appointment at the end of your first term is therefore extremely uncertain.

Applications should be sent by the closing date of……………… to……………………….’

The one certainty is that this is not the job advert that anyone will see for the shortly to be vacant post of Chief Executive at HM Revenue and Customs. And yet, while somewhat caricatured for effect, it is in all its essentials true. Small wonder that leading figures in the recruitment consultancies used by government to fill senior public sector posts say that it is becoming ever harder to persuade serious candidates even to consider putting themselves forward for such posts. Nor does there seem any prospect of this changing any time soon. While it is undoubtedly right that senior public servants should be held to account where they fail, the level of knee-jerk and gratuitous hostility and opprobrium faced by those in the most senior public sector positions, be they in central or local government, NHS Trusts or other public bodies, has probably never been higher. At the same time, driven by the mantra that no public servant should ever be paid more than the Prime Minister, the already very large gap between private and public sector remuneration levels for posts of comparable size and responsibility continues to grow.

Does any of this matter? Despite it all someone will be found who is willing to take on the role of HMRC Chief Executive and they may be good or lucky enough to succeed. And some of what is included in the spurious job advertisement above is, like the weather, simply unavoidable. But arguably it does very much matter. We are and will remain hugely dependant on our public sector leaders to deliver for us the core services on which this country depends be that in health, education, justice, the police, central and local government and much else besides from flood prevention to counter-terrorism. If in the future we do genuinely want to attract some of the very best people in this country – be they currently in the public or private sectors – to be willing to take on these roles then we need all of us, in government, Parliament, the media and the wider public, to embark on a serious re-examination of our current, debased and short-sighted, attitudes to public sector leadership. We need to be prepared to challenge our own, and others’, stereotypes and look to see how, over time, we can once again make senior roles in the public sector genuinely attractive. None of this will be easy but it is both urgent and necessary.

It is a cliché to say that we reap what we sow. What is almost certainly the case is that if we systematically deter the most able in our society from putting themselves forward for the most senior leadership positions in the public sector we will in the end get the public services we deserve.

Leigh Lewis