Working for the State: public service or gravy train?

Sunday 1 November, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Courtyard Gallery

The state is one of the UK’s biggest employers. Even with calls for major cuts in the midst of recession, most jobs today seem to be in the public sector, either directly or in state-supported quangos and social enterprises. With the effective nationalisation of major banks, the state looks to be colonising the world of work. What does this mean for Britain’s working culture? A recent survey found many public sector workers derive satisfaction from the sense they are playing a socially useful role, but detractors complain public sector jobs are overprotected and public sector workers have it easy. The private sector is seen as more self-interested and ruthlessly cut-throat, but also more efficient and enterprising, as well as being the real source of wealth. How significant are the differences between the two working cultures?

In recent years, the distinction between the state and the market has become blurred, with the introduction of the market into the NHS and education, and the development of the Private Finance Initiative. Many more jobs are ultimately supported by the state – from jobs in the arts to those in NGOs and charities, which don’t necessarily share the traditional culture of the public sector. Meanwhile, some say relentless form-filling, a target culture, performance-related incentives, privatisation and outsourcing have all but destroyed the public service ethos. They argue employees now have the worst of both worlds – lower pay and endless bureaucracy, but also greater scrutiny and insecurity rather than professional pride and a sense of being valued. And in the private sector, the new agenda of ‘corporate social responsibility’ means businesses and their employees are also concerned with the ‘public good’.

What effect have these developments had on Britain’s working culture, and is it the right one to kick-start economic growth? Commentators sometimes praise hard-working immigrants, prepared to go beyond the 9 to 5, unlike overpaid, municipal jobsworths and work-to-rule public sector trade unionists. But are British workers really so bad? And is private sector discipline the only way to foster entrepreneurialism and quality?

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Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Martin Horton
director, development and leadership, SOLACE Enterprises

Tim Smart
CEO, King’s College Hospital NHS FT; former CEO, BT Global Services UK

Toby Marshall
A Level Film Studies Teacher; PhD researcher in sociology of education, UCL Institute of Education

Produced by
Toby Marshall A Level Film Studies Teacher; PhD researcher in sociology of education, UCL Institute of Education
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