Public pay scales hold despite revamps

September 18, 1998

National Health Service trusts, local authorities and government agencies have kept to national pay scales and uniform employment conditions, according to research published this week. This is despite recent dramatic changes to their management structure.

"It suggests that there is a mismatch between central government rhetoric and practice," said Ian Kessler, a management studies lecturer at Oxford University.

There is little scope for genuine choice in the management of public-sector staff, according to Dr Kessler and his colleagues, who studied eight public-sector employers. The reasons for this will be the subject of future research. Nevertheless, Dr Kessler suspects that a lack of money prevents employers from setting local structures for pay and conditions.

Dr Kessler studied how different levels of decision-making affect the role and structure of personnel. He also examined management style, whether staff were encouraged to develop their careers, and the strength of trade unions and professional groups.

Dr Kessler interviewed chief executives, personnel managers, finance directors and trade union officials.

"The scope available to them to develop and structure their own activities was severely limited by extraneous policy developments," Dr Kessler said.

In the case of NHS trusts, the restraints were pressures from purchasers, GP fundholders, the NHS Executive and regions.

Local initiatives tended to affect less skilled workers. "In the NHS, attempts had been made to develop local health assistant grades, but none of our trusts had sought to institute new pay or grading arrangements for their doctors or nurses," Dr Kessler said.

He speculates that more skilled workers are shielded from change because "the residual power of certain professional groups is such that they can continue to impose common employment standards across organisations".

One of the key findings was that in all eight of the organisations studied, the personnel function was radically restructured although this might not have been the primary objective of the shake-up.

Dr Kessler also surveyed about 5,000 staff to see if they were satisfied with pay and opportunities for career development. He had expected that there would be a large variation in the answers. To his surprise, however, he got a fairly uniform response.

For example, 41 per cent of people working in acute units in hospitals in Portsmouth and St Albans and Hemel Hempstead said that they were encouraged to develop their skills.

From Strategic choice and the development of new forms of employment relations in the public services - Economic and Social Research Council.

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