I work in a social services department, where we are constantly fighting to provide the best service we can to their service users, with very scarce resources.
Like most councils our department is plagued by “performance indicators” (PIs) and the “star” system. The PIs work like targets in the NHS and league tables in schools. They put forward laudable aims — giving timely services, in a flexible and appropriate way — and that is what we all want. But in practice they skew the work done so that the limited resources are put into getting the appropriate box ticked, rather than prioritising, on the basis of assessment, areas of greatest need.
In council departments the reward for gaining stars (maximum of four, minimum of zero) has supposedly increased freedom, and meant less scrutiny. Most workers think all departments should be equally accountable! Four star councils find it much easier to recruit, whilst zero star councils spend vast amounts of their resources jumping through extra hoops.
The PIs that get measured change every year, and year on year the bar is raised while resources stay the same or decrease. This year, our department was struggling to meet its targets (the previous year the figures were successfully fiddled), and noticed they had “overspent” on staffing. So management thought they’d crank up the pressure, get rid of some temporary staff and reallocate the work the temps had been doing to the remaining staff.
We’re a small team, and quite overworked already. We saw this looming impossible workload and felt a mixture of disbelief and horror. But our management were quite clear the extra workload was compulsory, there was to be no negotiation; morale fell, and nervous breakdowns were widely predicted.
But both management and the workers underestimated the power of numbers. After a couple of weeks, the few people who hadn’t been in it, signed up to the union, and the members unanimously instructed their reps to tell management the newly “allocated” work was not going to be accepted.
Management then agreed to meet with union reps. The reps did not accept the extra work, and made clear their intention to escalate the dispute as necessary. With no sign of a sell out management gave up after a week, and did a complete u-turn on every point, offering extra resources that had never been asked for… but were very welcome!
Management are now considering how they will regain the upper hand. We have learnt our lesson however — when everyone’s in the union, and united in their aims, our voice is powerful. Now our reps are spreading the word to neighbouring departments. If you stand up to management, you can get them to back down — sometimes just by saying no!