As long as taxpayers are forced to foot the bill, the state has a duty to keep costs tolerable
In the US, to some extent, and much more here in the UK, a public servant is not simply someone employed by the state, but is often viewed as an extremely generous agent.
Similar to someone who has devoted their life to charity or aid work, a public servant has forgone other pursuits in life (mainly money), and instead given their talents and time to serving the public at large.
But as the failures of public sector wage-setting take a toll on employees across the UK, and calls for pay caps to be lifted grow louder, we must ask ourselves: what levels of public sector pay can and cannot be justified?
Take this week’s report in the Telegraph, which revealed that, while the nursing shortage worsens within the NHS, the number of people hired into management positions is on the rise.
On the face of it, this is a story about blatantly poor resource allocation on the part of the state monopoly, which has seen the number of bureaucrats rise by “almost one quarter in four years”, while the Royal College of Nursing estimates a “shortage of 40,000 nurses”.
But to focus solely on the fiscal and resource management of the NHS would be to miss the wider problem developing around public sector pay. Among the thousands of new hires, the “sharpest rise was among senior managers, whose pay normally starts at £65,000 a year”.
In the private sector, it is common to use salaries to recruit top talent. Attracting the best chief executives keeps companies competitive in increasingly globalised marketplaces. But the very concept of the public sector is that the best and brightest are there to serve the public first and foremost – their own rewards are a secondary concern.
I am not suggesting that NHS managers should work for pittance. Public sector employees deserve a decent quality of life, just like everyone else, and there should be more opportunity in the sector for merit-based wage-setting.
However, there is something grating about calling someone a “public servant” when your taxes are paying for them to have what is often akin to a lucrative private sector salary.
Even the most powerful person in the UK, the Prime Minister, earns hundreds of thousands of pounds less than the most prominent chief executive. That is exactly how it should be. Theresa May is a public servant. Chief executives are not.
Sadly, some public sector organisations don’t seem to have got the memo. According to The Taxpayers’ Alliance “Town Hall Rich List”, there were 2,314 council employees in in 2015-16 whose total annual remuneration exceeded £100,000 – an increase of 89 from the previous year.
The critical role of the Rich List isn’t just to highlight which three Sunderland City Council members had a combined £1,676,023 spent on them over the course of a year, but to demonstrate how lucrative and unaccountable the business of “public service” has become for some.
If taxpayers are made to foot every bill, it is the ethical duty of the state to keep costs and salaries as lean as possible. While one side always delivers on its responsibilities, it appears that the other side may have some work to do.
This article was first published in City AM.