Red meat for Christmas

It’s been a tough old year with much to depress us. So here, says Richard Digard, is something to look forward to – a States doing things better and more effectively for you

(Picture by Shutterstock)
(Picture by Shutterstock)

FOR those of the ‘bloated civil service’ persuasion, here’s a little gift, it being the night before Christmas and all that. Early in the new year, nearly 400 people in Guernsey’s public employ will know whether they still have their job or not.

Now, being told by politicians that what you do may no longer be needed is not especially festive so I’ll try to temper the message. Most of those earmarked will be able to remain employed by the States of Guernsey should they so choose.

There may be some redundancies but these will be kept to a minimum. Instead, a process that started a long time back but was accelerated by significant improvements in government’s technology and digital capability, ramped up by Covid, is coming to its conclusion.

From a taxpayer perspective – the red meat for Christmas, as it were – the benefit is that most of those near-400 positions identified as being ‘in scope’ (an expression deemed less alarming than ‘at risk’) will disappear. In turn, those who held the role will be offered work elsewhere, but possibly on less generous terms if the new post is a lower grade.

What was then an important milestone in public sector reforms was announced in early September. Basically, it said that the ‘in scope’ letters were being sent out and that facilitated by the better use of technology, with more services delivered online, the restructuring would create a more modern public service. This would operate ‘a single point of access in a way that puts the customer first and means their interactions with government can be done through a “one-stop, tell us once” approach,’ according to the release at the time.

Since then… well, not much really, if you’re looking for headlines. Instead, there’s been a lot of consultation and an appeals process, which enabled those affected to appeal against the decision to put their job ‘in scope’ at all.

The good news is that probably fewer than 20 did so because most in the public sector accept the need for change – and that’s also supported by the unions. So the next step will be the formal announcement over the next few months that posts are to go.

We know this because deputy chief minister Heidi Soulsby went out of her way last week to tell me so. She, too, was a bit irritated at being told she’s doing a crap job and that the Isle of Man’s Island Plan was a superior template for improving lives and building back better than Guernsey’s own Government Work Plan.

Look closely, apparently, and you can see where those Manx blighters have nicked our homework but if they appear to be moving faster, it’s because they have a different system of government.

That said, Deputy Soulsby can point to much progress locally and is particularly pleased with the earlier approval of the General Housing Law – which will regulate standards of rented property and introduce a deposit protection scheme for tenants – and new planning relaxations regarding redundant hotels and allowing alternative use of office space for housing.

Progress here also includes the short-order purchase of Kenilworth Vinery to help address the island’s housing shortage and the possibility of modular construction being used to contain costs and speed up build times. The first properties should be available by the summer of 2023. Other improvements, through what’s known as ‘policy levers’, should be announced by next autumn.

Go closely through Deputy Soulsby’s update on the Government Work Plan, which she delivered to the States last week, and you can see why it does indeed represent, as she said, a new way of thinking and a new way of working.

The problem is – and I don’t mean this to sound churlish – it’s not especially eye-catching: de-prioritising some previous activities; working out a phased timeline and resourcing for actions put forward by committees; and considering the interdependencies among strategies and actions to maximise efficiency and effectiveness.

The other slug of change she’d highlight is making in-principle decisions on where to invest time, people and money; directing committees on their core work to develop and implement policies to achieve agreed outcomes; and empowering Policy & Resources to release funding previously agreed in principle through delegated authority.

This basically translates as getting the States to operate in a bit more of a joined-up fashion, with more discipline focused around agreed and coordinated priorities and with P&R mandated to pay as and when, rather than going back to the Assembly for yet another debate to secure the cash.

It says much about our system of government that achieving this is actually material progress and represents thinking and working differently – the little elves in the States’ comms team really are missing a trick in not getting the message out there.

The other thing to look out for next year is a Human Capital Development Plan looking to plug skills gaps, improve adult literacy and numeracy and generally invest in islanders, starting with its children.

That, I should say, is on top of the already-announced extra wellbeing support over Christmas for those experiencing low to moderate stress, distress and isolation.

There’s more in the pipeline, including improving the effectiveness of government itself, so – if delivered – I think we can festively and cheerily agree with Deputy Soulsby that our Christmas cup is more half-full than half-empty.

However you’re celebrating this year, have a good one.

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