Trans-Atlantic (dis)agreements


Obama shows the way

Britain and America are apparently two nations divided by a common language but despite this we often share the same problems.

Exhibit A: the public sector worker.

Last month David Cameron got himself in a modicum of trouble for blaming civil servants for holding back his latest reforms (he called them the enemies of enterprise) and it seems that Barack Obama has also got himself into ‘public-servant bashing’ trouble describing some federal employees as ‘slugs’ who are not trying to do their job.

So, lazy public sector workers in both countries right?

Well, no.

What is striking about (the unedited version of) Mr Obama’s comments is that whilst he shares Mr Cameron’s concerns about the work of public servants his actual quote was taken out of context. So, whilst Mr Cameron, and our friend Mr Pickles, see public servants as part of the problem here is the rest of Mr Obama’s quote:

“What’s striking when you enter into the federal government is how generally smart and dedicated people are.” The president also noted that some federal employees “are slugs and not trying to do their job. But that’s true of any large institution.”

And later on, as the Washington Post reported;

During that private conversation, the president also praised feds saying, “Generally speaking, he would put up federal workers against any workers in the private sector.”

Public sector workers are, in Mr Obama’s conception, seen not as part of the problem but as part of the solution.

Refreshing isn’t it?

But what can we learn from the ‘Obama doctrine’ (I’m guessing this doesn’t count as a doctrine but hey?) on public sector workers.

Well, firstly that some realism is refreshing. Yes, there are ‘slugs’ in local government and all sorts of government. But that is also the case in all forms of organisation and employment. What is important is what we then do about the ‘slugs’ and how we work hard to make sure every public sector worker is delivering to the highest level.

But let’s be clear; there will always be ‘slugs’ and we need to get beyond drawing broad lessons from the small number of bad officers.

Secondly, public sector workers are part of the solution. Politicians are elected to make decisions and public sector workers are the ones responsible for implementing them and making sure these visions become reality.

So, both Mr Cameron and Mr Obama have been hard on public sector workers but the subtlety of their approach reveals a striking difference. I know who’s camp I’m in.

And whilst we’re on a bit of a trans-atlantic kick do check out the American Public Service Recognition week; definitely something we need in this country.

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