On 16 December 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following motion:

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Labour) to move that this House takes note of the report from the Public Services Committee ‘Fit for the future? Rethinking the public services workforce’.

1. What is the background to the report?

1.1 House of Lords Public Services Committee

The House of Lords Public Services Committee was set up in 2020 to scrutinise questions of policy which cut across different public services. Following its first report, the committee established eight key principles for public services reform which it says has underpinned its work since. These principles included recognising the “vital role” of preventative services in reducing inequalities and improving the way central government and national service providers communicate and cooperate with those at the local level.

1.2 The inquiry: ‘A public services workforce fit for the future’

In January 2022, the committee launched an inquiry on designing a public services workforce fit for the future. It said that the inquiry would focus on:

  • recruiting, retaining and training the public services workforce
  • what tools are needed to transform service delivery and workforce effectiveness
  • the changes needed to the structure of the workforce, particularly to enable better integration between services
  • developing a workforce which involves users in the design and delivery of services

The committee said that it would consider public services “in the broadest possible sense” and would explore community-level initiatives as well as the role of the private, voluntary and charitable sectors.

Explaining why the committee chose to focus on these issues, its chair, Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Labour), said that the demand for public services was “growing faster than the number of professionals who can deliver them”. She added that the Covid-19 pandemic had accelerated this trend. The committee also linked the increase in demand for public services to an expected rise in the number of older people and the changing health profile of the UK population.

To inform its inquiry the committee opened a public call for evidence. The committee said it received a “significant amount” of evidence about the health and social care workforce and that evidence also explored challenges in the civil service, local government and the prison and police services. Both the written submissions and transcripts of oral evidence are available on the committee’s pages on the UK Parliament website.

2. What did the committee’s report say?

2.1 Findings

The committee published its report ‘Fit for the future? Rethinking the public services workforce’ in July 2022. The committee found that the public services workforce was “facing a crisis”, arguing that significant staff shortages had had a serious impact on service users and that morale was “very low”. It reported that employers were “not doing enough to make public service careers attractive to prospective staff” and that there were difficulties with recruitment. The committee noted that while long waiting times for NHS services were often reported, the problem was broader with staff in sectors including education, policing, justice and care “overstretched” and sometimes unable to meet the needs of people who urgently needed support.

The committee argued that expected demographic changes meant that these issues were going to get worse:

The inescapable demographic fact is that demand for services will rise far faster than the working-age population. The proportion of the population with multiple and complex needs will rise further, even as the labour market available will be smaller. The challenge is substantial: the public sector will have to deliver the same or better outcomes with less labour available.

The committee also highlighted that the Covid-19 pandemic had put pressure on all public services, arguing that it had showed the need for a “stronger and more sustainable” workforce. However, the committee said the pandemic had also showed that more flexible approaches to public service delivery “are possible and desirable”.

Other findings set out in the report included that:

  • many public service workers face “intense pressure” and “suffering”, as well as unacceptable levels of discrimination
  • the potential of many staff to deliver services is largely untapped, with a need to think imaginatively about how and where they could be better deployed
  • there are simple ways to enhance the “offer” of public service careers that should be taken
  • traditional routes into public service careers are limiting and action must be taken to make them more accessible
  • the public sector needs to “train to retain” and must rethink its training and development offer to allow staff to meet their full potential

The committee said that the identified problems are not unsolvable. However, it argued that current efforts were not enough and that at present “little action” was being taken towards the “transformative changes” needed. It also said the government did not have the “hard data” it needed to plan ahead. Looking forward, the committee argued that solutions would need to focus on how demand could be kept at manageable levels through earlier intervention and by “rethinking who (or what) delivers services, and when”.

Commenting on these findings, the committee’s chair, Lady Armstrong, said:

It is clear that user demands on the public services workforce are increasing and that staff numbers cannot keep up. It is imperative that we find new and different ways of delivering effective public services and taking the public sector workforce along in this process so that people get a better service when they access these facilities.

2.2 Recommendations

The committee made 16 recommendations. It used these to produce an action strategy which it said represented its priorities for securing the sustainability of the workforce. This strategy set out the following actions:

  • understand the problem by collecting and sharing workforce data
  • get the most out of the workforce by empowering them and thinking imaginatively about where they could be deployed
  • make services work for users through meaningful consultation
  • use technology in the most productive and informative ways
  • prioritise preventative services
  • end the culture problems driving people to leave
  • make the offer of public service careers more attractive by fixing pensions and offering flexible working
  • fix the broken brand of public service careers, and get an appealing message out
  • create new and accessible entry routes, and properly use those that already exist
  • train to retain: rethink development so that skills can be recognised and used more effectively across broad careers

The committee said that its recommendations all urged flexibility:

Flexibility in deploying teams; flexibility in allowing them to make the decisions they are equipped to; flexibility in the use of technology and in external engagement; in what qualifications are needed and how they are accessed; and flexibility in how to retain the people the workforce will need for the future.

In summary, the committee argued that its action plan would “go a long way to addressing the problems we have identified”. It added that it had “not approached the problem on the cheap”, but that its recommendations and action plan would “set the workforce on a more sustainable footing”.

3. How did the government respond to the report?

The government responded to the committee’s report on 7 November 2022. It said that it agreed with “all of the committee’s recommendations” and that it was committed to:

[…] ensuring that engagement with service users and people with lived experience is properly resourced and embedded in the design and delivery of services, strategies and workforce planning, and training programmes across all areas of the public sector workforce.

The government also said that it recognised the importance of efficient and effective technology in delivering high-quality public services, “now and in the future”.

In addition, the government highlighted “several positive areas where progress has already been made”. It gave the following examples of activity to date:

  • The introduction of the public sector apprenticeship target by the Department for Education to boost apprenticeship starts across the public sector.
  • A government commitment to invest at least £500mn to improve the recruitment, retention, progression and staff wellbeing of the adult social care workforce. A universal knowledge and skills framework would be accompanied by “significant” government investment in skills and training for care workers and other staff.
  • The launch of the digital and data essential guidance in May 2022 which outlined future required capabilities for all senior civil servants. The guide is being used to inform future learning and development as well as talent planning activities.
  • Investment in preventative services across the public sector, including ‘supporting families’ and reducing reoffending.

4. Read more

4.1 Health and adult social care

4.2 Policing, prisons, probation and border force

4.3 Education and social work

4.4 General

Cover image by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash.