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Baroness Armstrong: Our public services are at breaking point – we need imaginative solutions to deliver a sustainable workforce for the future

4 min read

The public service workforce is at breaking point.

Staff shortages are significant and are having a serious impact upon service users. Morale is very low, and employers are not doing enough to make public service careers attractive to prospective staff. There is considerable difficulty in recruiting, and with an aging population, this vicious circle will get far worse.

The Lords Public Services Committee I chair has investigated how those who deliver public services can be supported and empowered to make delivery efficient, how to attract them to enter public service roles and how to ensure that they want to stay. The answer is, largely, to be more flexible. To be more flexible in deploying teams, in allowing them to make decisions, the use of technology and in external engagement and how people are supported to enter the workforce. The action plan that we have set out would, if implemented, make a substantive difference.  

Apprenticeships and local talent pools could be used to attract, recruit and train the next generation of public and civil servants

We have always been clear that preventative care is the way forward. This inquiry has only strengthened that view, but funding for prevention services has fallen by 47 per cent in the last decade. Prioritising prevention, whether that be in health, social care, or in the justice system, is the economically sensible thing to do.

Our dedicated, talented public servants should also be empowered to undertake tasks to the full range of their abilities. Physician associates, for example, (who do many tasks of a GP) should be able to prescribe medicine – but regulation prohibits this. Frontline workers need to seek sign-off on their decisions far more often than is reasonable. We need to do better in tapping the full potential of our people; not only for their benefit, but for service users who bear the brunt of delays.

As a society, we also put unnecessary barriers in place for those wishing to qualify for particular roles. Again, public sector employers, professional bodies, regulators, and universities should be far more flexible in how they recruit. Inspiring examples at local level have shown us hope for how apprenticeships and local talent pools could be used to attract, recruit and train the next generation of public and civil servants. Medical degree apprenticeships are promising, as they allow people to qualify without debt and with the same level of expertise at the end of the process. Alternative routes can also help enhance diversity: many groups are under-represented in the public services workforce. Surely the public service workforce should reflect the population it serves?

We found a step-change in how people view their careers: more “portfolio” than “job for life”. If we are to keep people in the public sector, we need to find ways for them to develop their skills in role and move between different jobs, with the skills they have developed recognised. We have recommended a system for logging experience and expertise wherever it is developed. This would help resolve the absurdity we have now, where a physician associate wishing to train as a GP would have to start from scratch, going through medical school from the beginning.

Our findings get to the heart of how the public sector can better attract, train, and retain the people we need to deliver services into the future. And with a demographic crisis looming, demand for services will rise far faster than the working-age population. The proportion of the population with multiple and complex needs will rise further, even as the labour market available will be smaller.

The challenge is substantial: the public sector will have to deliver the same or better outcomes with less labour available. It is time to start making big changes.


Baroness Armstrong is a Labour peer and chair of the Lords Public Services Committee.

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