Fat Cat Salaries and Gold-Plated Pensions

Much of the popular press would have us believe that working in the public sector goes hand-in-hand with ‘fat-cat’ salaries (see here; here; and here), gold-plated final salary scheme pensions (here and here) and a job for life. In this context one might wonder why anyone would want to work anywhere else! Yet as this article by The Guardian demonstrates, these sensationalist headlines do not reflect the reality of the vast majority of public sector workers. Indeed, as the Full Fact website concludes,

The Office of National Statistics report actually notes many of the caveats raised by the unions, however much of this important context has been lost in the media reporting on the issue. Far from conclusively reporting the relative pay of workers in the private and public sectors, the ONS report seems to ask more questions than it answers.

So what are the benefits of working in the public sector? Indeed, are there any benefits at all?

1. It is hard

Working in the public sector is, in my opinion, harder than working in the private sector. Now let me qualify that statement. I don’t mean that all those who work in the public sector work longer hours or put in more effort over the average day than those who work in the private sector. But it is more difficult in the sense that measures of success are more difficult to define (and can shift over time). In the private sector, again to generalise, the measure of success is profit and the ultimate boss is the shareholders. In the public sector there are many different stakeholders including politicians (sometimes from opposing political parties), voters, the general public and service users – all of whom may have competing priorities in terms of what they perceive as being success. So, in other words, the public sector is more complex and linked to this efficiency savings are harder to achieve. How is this a benefit? Well, some people may quite like a challenge! At the same time it means that typically no two days will be the same and working with multiple groups of stakeholders, including international agencies, national governments and the general public, can be hugely rewarding in its own right.

2. It is not well paid

Again, it might seem counter-intuitive to highlight poor pay as an advantage of working in the public sector. To clarify, what I am referring to here is that there is comparatively poor pay in relation to equivalent jobs in the private sector. This has been demonstrated in ONS data, as referred to in this report by The Guardian, which shows that those with a degree or equivalent earn less in the public sector than in the private sector. So, if you are motivated by financial rewards, the public sector is most definitely not for you. People who work in the public sector tend to be motivated by, what has become known as, public service motivation (PSM). This explains how many of those who work in the public sector do so, not because of the personal benefits that accrue from this employment, but because of the social value of these jobs. Significant research has been conducted into the nature of PSM (see Perry 1996Perry, 1997;  Crewson, 1997;  Houston, 2000Wright et al., 2013Desmarais and Gamassou, 2014; and Ritz, 2016). Although different definitions abound, originally PSM was seen to involve: attraction to public policy making, commitment to the public interest, civic duty, social justice, self-sacrifice, and compassion. These are the real benefits of working in the public sector.

To put it another way, we should consider this, across the UK more than 5 million people are employed in the public sector. In Scotland 20.9% of the workforce is employed in the public sector. That does not include the significant numbers of people who work in private and third sector organisations delivering or supporting public services. Those people do not work in those roles because they are easy or well paid. People choose to work in the public sector because they believe in public service values and they believe in the potential of public services to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in our society and support thriving and sustainable communities. What other reason do you need?


This blog is an extended version of an interview which appeared in Prospects Magazine.

Published by iancelliott

Senior Lecturer and Director of Education (PGT) at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Chair of the UK Joint University Council (JUC). Interested in all things public service.

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