Friday, October 23, 2009

Make The Monster Go Away Mummy

There comes a night when every parent has to reassure their child that there isn't a monster under the bed. Often for more than one night. But every child grows out of it, unless she or he gets a job in the civil service. Then the monsters sometimes come back.

Living with monsters under the bed can be stressful. No wonder 6 out of 10 civil servants go on sick leave every year, for a cumulative average of just over two working weeks (11 days). Here are some of the highlights from the Comptroller & Auditor General's report on Managing Sickness Absences in the Civil Service:
  • the average number of days that each employee was out sick ranged from almost five and a half days in the Department of the Taoiseach to nearly 16 days in the Property Registration Authority
  • the percentage of staff who took sick leave ranged from 42% of staff in the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism to 76.5% in the State Laboratory
  • 42% of all instances of absence representing 9% of all days lost were uncertified by a doctor or unauthorised
  • almost half of all sick days were taken by Clerical Officers and three quarters of all Clerical Officers availed of sick leave. The average number of days taken by each Clerical Officer was 16 days
  • female staff absence accounted for 68% of all working days lost, the average number of sick days taken by each female employee was almost 14 days, while the average for each male employee was around eight days
  • the average number of days lost for those working a three day week was almost 80% higher than the average for those who worked a standard week.
They should have called their report Mis-Managing Sickness Absences. The bottom line: no business in the private sector could survive with this level of absenteeism. But maybe it isn't about monsters - maybe it's about incentives. Sometimes employers use positive incentives ... and sometimes they use negative incentives. For the less technically minded this is known as the 'carrot and stick approach'. In the public sector they have a different approach to incentives: it's call the 'carrot and carrot approach'.

Or, more accurately, the 'carrot and bunch of carrots approach'. Hence the news today that public sector employees saw their average weekly earnings rise by 3.2% to €973.07 in the year to June (an 'inflation' adjusted increase of 8.6% allowing for deflation of 5.4% in the year to June). That's the carrot. Then there was the other C&AG report yesterday on Central Government Pensions which tells us that a) current public service pension liabilities stand at over €100 billion and that b) taxpayers will have to further contribute a net €157 billion on top of public servants own contributions (and an assumed continuation of the Pension Related Deduction (PRD) introduced in March this year). That's the bunch of carrots.

So where does this leave us? We now not only have a public sector that is extraordinarily privileged relative to their private sector counterparts: they are also increasingly aggrieved at perceived threats to their privileges. Instead of admitting they are part of the problem, public sector unions prefer to indulge in 'whataboutery'. "It was the nasty bankers and developers what caused the recession; we were just doing our jobs and innocently awarding ourselves double-digit pay increases and platinum-plated pensions; so we had nothing to do with it".

Until politicians and public sector union leaders are prepared to admit that you cannot support a 2007-size public sector on top of a 2001-size private sector then no amount of street protests will make any difference. But I don't expect that to happen any time soon. Politicians are already victims of Stockholm Syndrome when it comes to public sector unions. Over-familiarity has blinded them to the unreasonableness of their captors' demands. Hence the tolerance for intolerable levels of sick leave.

Worse, we have an ageing public sector which has turned inwards, viewing the world through increasingly paranoid eyes. Irish civil servants are not unique in this regard mind. Here's the findings from a study of the level of risk aversion and altruism among public sector employees (ht Geary):
Summarizing, we have found clear support for the hypothesis that public sector employees are more risk averse than private sector employees. However, in contrast to our expectations, we have also found that public sector employees are on average less inclined to make charitable contributions than private sector employees. This effect is partly due to the fact that many more people in the public sector feel underpaid. Moreover, we have found that feelings of underpayment have much larger repercussions for the odds of donating to charity in the public sector than in the private sector, suggesting that public sector employees consider the contributions they make on the job as a substitute for charitable donations. Our findings suggest that many public sector employees feel that they already donate a lot to society by exerting effort on the job for relatively little pay and, therefore, are less willing to make any further contributions than their private sector counterparts. Lastly, we have found a clear effect of tenure on pro-social inclinations in the public sector, which arises independently of feelings of dissatisfaction about pay. As public sector employees’ tenure increases, they become less and less inclined to make charitable contributions, while there is no tenure effect for private sector employees.
Like Charlie Haughey before them, they have done the State some service - and now they feel the state should service them in turn.

Still, they might be right. There might be a monster under the bed. One with the initials I.M.F. tattooed on its forehead. I hope it goes away.

12 comments:

  1. The unions should be aware that (to my knowledge) the IMF does not use lube.

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  2. i'm a public servant (i ducked quick to avoid the rotten tomatoes). i never joined the union, i expect i won't be going on any protest marches or out on strike. It'll be funny going to work, but i've been prepared for this day when i can stand in solidarity with the other non-public sector citizenry of the nation. i never joined a union because i always feared they would represent me with views i didn't believe in. not that i am anti-union per se, but what starts out fighting the establishment often turns into the establishment.

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  3. oh, and i should add that i contribute 2% of my monthly salary to charity.

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  4. Are there Irish blog Pulitzers? This is the best post I've read in a long time anywhere!

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  5. Cheers Ronan.

    Holbrook: no need to duck - serving the public is a noble ambition and some (though plainly not all) public servants are motivated thus.

    But for every servant of the public (in my experience honourably inspired by a deep patriotism) there are a bunch of slackers entitled to the same terms and conditions regardless of effort.

    There's slackers in the private sector too - don't get me wrong - but the sanctions for their misbehaviour are well known and eventually applied (usually with the support of their non-slacking colleagues).

    You need the carrots AND the sticks.

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  6. Holbrook

    I meant to add: if my employer was the government I'd want to be in a union. There is no more powerful nor more capricious employer than the state.

    Look at de-centralisation: no private sector company of a similar scale would have dared try such a stroke. The shareholders would have got rid of the management long before the workers decided they'd had enough.

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  7. The female/male difference of about 6 days p.a is striking. You may be interested to know this is in line with Europe generally but less than the US. There is a very interesting study of this by Ichino & Moretti published recently, link below. Women's absences tend to be 28 days apart and this pattern goes away when they are older than 45. So its probably their periods. This explains a big chunk of the male/female wage gap.

    http://www2.dse.unibo.it/ichino/AEJapp_2007_0091_manuscript.pdf

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  8. It's a pity the way the findings of the report on absenteeism were presented.

    Very few of the civil servants I know take around 11 days sick leave a year. It's generally either under a week or protracted periods of weeks or more. As well as that, the presence of several staff members claiming long periods of sickness in the calender year used is likely to skew the reported average, particularly in the smaller departments. As such, reporting the median and mode of sick days taken would have been a far more useful statistic than the simple mean.

    I won't deny that there are chancers within the civil service. But there are also people with long-term chronic medical conditions that few private sector workplaces would tolerate. These people still have plenty to give in the right context and the civil service often provides this. The alternative - having them sit at home on illness or disability benefit instead - provides no productivity whatsoever.

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  9. Gerard,

    Excellent blog post. What scope do you see for competitive job-sharing within these Clerical Officer (CO) grades?

    We have a huge unemployment problem, a set of services experiencing unprecedented demand leading to a slowdown in throughput, and COs giving themselves bank holiday weekends twice a month. Surely putting a van outside every dole office with a set of forms and putting job-sharing COs on 18month contracts in to help cope with the demand on selected services in a revenue-neutral manner makes sense?

    The COs will of course be upset that their incomes are being reduced, but page 23 of the CAG's report (no.69) shows that individually they cost us 3,087 per person in lost man hours, giving them not much of a leg to stand on.

    And we can refine it. Take every person without an underlying medical condition who chucked a sicky for more than a week last year, and have their job-shares started automatically. At the end of the 18months, let a panel of 3 line managers from outside the department decide who gets the job.

    And before the 'legal' argument gets run up, remember we can ram NAMA through committee stages in time for Christmas pudding, so let no one say it's not do-able.

    What do you think? Increased efficiency, reduction in sick days, and revenue-neutrality.

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  10. The point about mean & median is a good one (probably not the mode though, distribution might be multimodal for example at 5 & 10). You certainly need to distinguish between those on long term sickness and the regular folks. It may well be that the information systems are not up to producing a median (Im not kidding).

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  11. Stop hiring women of child-bearing age. We can't afford the higher level of sick leave adverted to by Kevin. Equality legislation needs to be changed to take account of the new economic reality, or there'll be no jobs for anyone.

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  12. Stephen: love the idea of mobile recruitment vans outside dole offices, if they can do it for blood donors ... ;-)

    More seriously, yes: the nature of the contract of employment in the public sector (jobs-for-life) needs re-thought (and I'd add ditto for the private sector).

    Anonymous/Kevin: on the mean/median point it would certainly to do the analysis, subject to the data. The recent CSO report on public/private pay gaps used median analyses which pointed to an even greater gap when using mean analysis:

    http://www.cso.ie/releasespublications/documents/earnings/2007/nes_2007supp.pdf

    Kevin/Fishy: the male/female difference is one I hadn't considered. Combine greater sick leave with a longer lifespan and the obvious, equitable solution is to legislate that men retire earlier than women ... ;-)

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