The Thinning

The public sector is being thinned, local government is being thinned, thinning creates anxiety and uncertainty, distrust and suspicion,  a constant threat of decline, alongside a sense of loss and a feeling that all is not right with the world.

There is yet no end in sight of the thinning but the impact of 5 years of savage budgets cuts, redundancies, outsourcing and management restructuring is evident in the role of managers. Slimmer, flatter, thinner management structures a cross the public sector mean managers have greater spans of responsibility and find themselves responsible for services they have no professional background in and no direct experience of. Managers are now testing out just how transferable their skills are.

The thinning can mean with a back ground in a totally unrelated area  you suddenly and unexpectedly find yourself responsible for high profile services like Housing and Libraries, quirky services like Museums or statutory services like Registrars (births, deaths and marriages) with a brief to reduce, close, restructure, down size and  cut posts to make big budget savings. With my background in social service I found myself responsible for the Coroners support service.

Suicides, murders, motorway fatalities the Coroner investigates all sudden and unexpected deaths. He is paid by the local authority but not professional accountable to the local authority. The local authority is responsible for providing his support. Coroners are traditionally doctors or lawyers specialist areas I have no expertise in. The Coroner claims the back log of cases is due to insufficient admin support, failure to upgrade his IT equipment and inappropriate accommodation for holding complex hearings involving many witnesses. He claims that the local authority has failed to recognise that his is one of the busiest coroner’s office in the north west due to the number of hospitals, prisons and motorways. He is stating the back log of cases can only get longer if these issues are not immediately addressed and that to deal with the backlog he needs a deputy coroner. He has been in post just over a year. Being both a doctor and lawyer he is ideally qualified to be a coroner. He has requested a salary review providing two examples of recent adverts for coroners posts at a salary over ten thousand a year more than he is being paid. My predecessor simply said in the current austerity climate there was nothing he could do to address these issues. Since then there has been a rapid rise in the back log due to a couple of complex time consuming cases. There are complaints from MPs on behalf of relatives and a high profile death in police custardy with no date yet for the hearing. I feel pressured to respond yet have no experience of this very specialised area to assess his claims and the chief executive has told all directors that the cabinet doesn't want any special pleading. 

I didn't manage the Coroner but was accountable for his performance, he was a qualified doctor and lawyer, I was a manager with no medical or legal background and no previous knowledge or experience of the service. I was well outside my comfort zone, a feeling many more local authority managers are going to experience as the "thinning “continues. 

Blair McPherson author and blogger on the public sector 

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