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Why Boris should bring back conscription We need something more radical than a recruitment drive to fill the gaps in our public services

Boris needs to think big when it comes to filling public sector vacancies. Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Boris needs to think big when it comes to filling public sector vacancies. Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

February 18, 2020   4 mins

“Twenty thousand police officers. Fifty thousand nurses.” This is the new political catechism, chanted in unison last week by the Cabinet at their inaugural post-reshuffle meeting. Question it and you will be excommunicated by the disciplinarian-in-chief, Dominic Cummings. But unless one of the Prime Minister’s new Weirdos is running a secret clone factory on another planet, it’s hard to know where these legions of new public sector workers will come from.

The reality is that recruiting into the public sector is a ceaseless slog. Have you ever wondered why there are always so many adverts for life in the army? For teacher training? For the police? It’s not because recruiters like spending money. It’s because they are always in desperate need of talented new people, and such people are hard to find. These public services have to have high standards, whether that’s good qualifications, good fitness, or a clean criminal record. Pay isn’t great. Working hours are tough. Scrutiny is endless. And the UK has more people already in work than at any point since the early 70s.

No wonder the NHS has more than 100,000 vacancies. Social care has more than 110,000 vacancies. The police, the army and the fire service tend to get plenty of applicants, but they end up turning thousands away because they don’t measure up. The army met its recruitment target last year, but only after five years of failure — and after launching a new boot camp to help the unfit get up to standard before taking their entry tests.

Half the staffing battle isn’t recruitment at all: it’s stopping people from leaving. 15% of teachers leave in their first year; 30% within their first five years. In 2010 I helped plan for a coalition policy to recruit 4,200 extra health visitors. By the end of our first meeting, the plan had transformed: we had to recruit about 9,000 health visitors, because so many were planning to retire in the coming years. The recruitment drive was then ditched by the 2015 government — and as soon as it was, numbers slumped back, falling by more than 3,000 over three years.

It’s like trying to fill a bath with no plug in it. There are alarm bells ringing about how crappy it is to work in so many of these frontline jobs, and instead of fixing those problems, we’re exhausting all our energy desperately trying to recruit people who aren’t that fussed. The difficulty of finding good people for the public sector doesn’t mean we should give up trying. But it does mean we should try something different.

Instead of panicking about the high turnover rates in the public sector, we should see them as inspiration. It probably is too much to expect people to work in a front line public service job for the fifty years that will soon comprise the average working life. So let’s stop pretending these are vocations, or jobs that should take you from pimples to wrinkles. Soon the majority of us will live for a century: everyone could expect to have two or three careers in that time. So a spell in public service should be a part of every citizen’s life.

Initiatives like Teach First and Now Teach have got the right idea: make it clear that public service is a great way to start out in the workplace; a great way to return to work after having children; a great way to find purpose later on in life; a great way to spend your last years before retirement. Dogs may be for life, but jobs are not any more.

It’s not good for our society to have one group of people who work exclusively in the private sector making the money, and another group spending it. It breeds resentment and misunderstanding. I’ve lost track of the number of senior business people who bleat that everyone in the public sector is a lazy and inefficient jobsworth. They imagine they’re the only ones who work hard, because they’ve no idea what it’s like to hold the hand of a dying patient, or coax ambition from a struggling teenager, or wrestle an attacker from their victim.

I’d like to make it compulsory: everyone should spend a minimum of five years working somewhere in public service. You wouldn’t be able to claim your state pension unless you’d done it. The days of conscripting all our young people into the army have passed, and I’m glad of it. We don’t need armed national service. But we do need a culture of civic service, a recognition that you need to do more than just pay your taxes to be part of a society. You have to be involved.

The pathway should go both ways of course. Plenty of public servants have a toxic view of what life is like in business. They imagine rapacious greed and profit to be the only topics of conversation at the watercooler, and have an unhealthy contempt for words like “efficiency”. The civil service is slowly getting better at sending people out on secondment to businesses for a couple of years at a time, but there’s often still suspicion of anyone who does it. Rules set up to prevent grift end up acting as a huge barrier to anyone leaving, building up expertise about life outside government, and returning to make public services better.

By insisting everyone spend part of their career in public service, and part in the private sector, we could transform both. We could inject the values of purpose and service into our businesses. We could bring ideas and innovation into the heart of the public sector — and perhaps even make those jobs easier and more fulfilling to do. And we could build a culture of compassion and understanding between private and public sector workers, who might stop complaining about each others’ excessive pay or cushy conditions, and instead value the contributions each make.

So let’s stop with half measures — trying to recruit just enough people to fill the vacancies and then panicking five minutes later because someone retired. We should double, or treble, our ambition when it comes to recruiting teachers, nurses, doctors, soldiers and police officers. Let’s train everyone we can get our hands on. We have to make it normal for everyone to serve their country, whether it’s for five years or fifty.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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4 years ago

Well Polly, after you. I came out because of crappy conditions, poor pay, and lack of progression-I have 30 years in health, 26 of those in the intensive sector but I’ve never really passed first base or gotten into people management. The main problem is lacklustre, inefficient, and vindictive management whose mantra is face fit culture and to treat staff badly to get the best out of them.