From the TUC

Front-line or back-office? A fake division

30 Mar 2011, by in Public services

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary have today published their analysis of what constitutes a front-line police job.

And politicians of all parties like to say that they will defend front-line public service jobs by cutting the back-office bureaucrats.

But this division is a nonsense.Of course some jobs are more public-facing than others. But front-line jobs cannot be done without backroom support. If you sack a back-office worker whose job needs doing, you end up diverting someone from the front-line to do it. The net result is a cut in front-line services.

Indeed I can remember when the fashion was the other way round. Backroom staff were recruited in order to free up front-line staff, so they could spend more time facing the public rather than doing paperwork.

That is not to say that there is never any room for efficiency savings in the public sector. There are no doubt places where back-room support services could be organised more efficiently. That goes for front-line tasks too. But this is just a trivial truism for any organisation.

And the universal service obligation that many parts of the public service have makes such savings more problematic than in the private sector. We need enough firefighters on duty to cope with all the fires that might reasonably occur, even if we know that most of the time we won’t reach that degree of demand. In the private sector they can just stop servicing customers who don’t return a profit. (We value your call, but all our customer service agents are busy at the moment …)

But the scale and speed of the cuts demanded by ministers go so far beyond what might reasonably be gained from genuine efficiencies that this is a diversion from the real issue. And in any case genuine efficiency savings should be sought at all times as there is always more that can be done with any spare resources generated.

Cuts are cuts. Some are more damaging than others, and some will take time to have an impact. But we should not fall for the front-line/back-office division. It’s spin.