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Friday 17 March 2017

Playing the long game

By Matt Ross
Following his re-election at the end of last year, FDA General Secretary Dave Penman talks to Matt Ross about Brexit, civil service cuts and the future of the union.

Brexit is an enormous challenge, and critical to the country – but it’s being done on a shoestring: a make-do-and-mend approach, with very few extra resources,” says FDA general Dave Penman. “This is madness.”

Many departments have seen administration budgets shrink by a fifth since 2010, he adds, and they’re being asked to find another 20% by 2020. Yet Brexit will demand “a lot of resource and expertise to support our exit process and to cope with all the policy requirements, and if we don’t invest in that work, the chances are it will backfire quite quickly.” As workloads spiral, budgets decline and public sector salaries lose value, Penman fears, something’s got to give.

So Brexit presents a major threat to both the working lives of FDA members, and their ability to deliver for the public. But it also attracts intense media interest – and that, says Penman, has provided “an opportunity to get out there into the public space” and make the case for wider investment in the civil service.

Since Brexit, Penman has been doing a lot of press and TV work – hammering home the message that endlessly squeezing civil service pay will ultimately produce an exodus of the most skilled and valuable staff, badly undermining the government’s ability to deliver on its priorities.

“The Treasury thinks pay restraint has been a success: they can see no cost to it, because people aren’t leaving in droves,” he says. But he warns that, as inflation and private sector salaries inch up, those chickens will come home to roost, “and by the time you’ve reached the point where you’re driving people out of the organisation, it’s going to take you a decade to turn that around.”

Penman is playing a long game here: as he acknowledges, “the macroeconomic policy of the public sector pay cap is a very difficult thing to unlock”. But the Treasury’s approach has become more flexible during this Parliament, and the FDA is negotiating with 60 civil service organisations on ways to improve members’ pay, employer by employer.

The FDA’s members are, he adds, “intelligent people who understand the limitations. They know we can’t wave a magic wand. And we’re honest about the things we can influence, and those that are more difficult.”

The FDA is willing to use hard levers, says Penman, but only in pursuit of realistic goals. “We’re unafraid to challenge employers and government, but also unafraid to reach agreement.” Over pensions, for example, the union took industrial action as a “demonstration of the strength of our members’ feelings, in order to influence the negotiation process”.

Then it engaged with government negotiators, securing a deal that produced “the flattest contribution rates in the public sector”. Senior NHS managers make pension contributions of 14-15%, he points out; senior civil servants pay 6-7%.

But it’s no longer enough, Penman argues, for unions to perform well in traditional representation and advocacy work: members also expect help with developing their skills, their careers and their professional networks. “Increasingly, we’re helping members to make a success of their careers,” he says. “Our learning offer has grown exponentially over the last five years.

There’s such a thirst for it – partly because employers’ learning offers have reduced, but also because we offer something different. It’s not technical training, it’s about thinking about your career, about supporting people through selection or promotion processes.”

Some 3-4,000 members now undertake FDA training courses each year, and the union is expanding its offer – notably through its Women in Leadership conference series, and a new set of courses focusing on the skills required for Brexit.

It’s partly in order to improve its learning services that the FDA is buying a permanent headquarters in Borough, near London Bridge station (see page 13). “Part of my job is to secure the future of the union,” says Penman. “We’ve never owned anything in our 100-year history, and about 8% of our income goes on rent.”

The union will attempt to “pay off the mortgage as soon as possible – and that will take a significant cost out”. Meanwhile, the union will gain its own conference and training space in central London, along with catering facilities and the opportunity to generate income from hosting events.

Penman has also been investing in the FDA’s communications operation – boosting the press team and developing a new website to strengthen its voice in the public debate. And then there’s Keystone: the FDA offshoot serving civil servants in SEO, HEO and equivalent grades.

The launch of the new union, Penman explains, “was a reflection of the way the FDA had already changed” by opening up membership to all grades in the security services, the Diplomatic Service and the Fast Stream. And changes within the civil service have started to blur the traditional Grade 7 boundary: “In some departments, SEOs are managing hundreds of staff and doing jobs that grade 7s or even 6s did a decade ago,” he says.

The next task for Keystone, says Penman, is to “develop a strong professional voice for its members” – a group whose interests may often diverge from those of traditional FDA members. “It’s got to evolve to genuinely reflect the values and interests of its members,” he explains. “Getting that right is what will attract more people to join it.”

And this is the key challenge, because Keystone, like the FDA, is fishing for members in an ever-shrinking civil service pool. As the FDA expands its range of services, and austerity drives more demand for collective and individual representation, the union is recruiting faster than ever. But at the same time civil service cuts are pushing large numbers of members out of employment: “We’re running up the down escalator,” says Penman with a bitter smile.

Losing members squeezes the FDA’s income, leaving the union facing similar challenges to many civil service bodies: “I couldn’t be prouder of the team we’ve got, and they work tremendously hard on behalf of members,” says Penman. “But when everyone’s working long hours just to deliver day-to-day services, it’s a challenge to get people thinking about recruitment.”

He urges FDA members to take on roles as local representatives, helping to spread the word about the union’s work and bolster services at local level: “It’s tough for FDA members because lots of them have really busy day jobs,” he adds, “but we’ve got a really good offer, and we need local representatives to help us raise our visibility in the workplace.”

Penman’s focus on local volunteers reflects his own path through the union movement, which began when he became a local union representative in a social security office. “That work really shows you what people value about unions, and the reasons why people join them,” he says. And it’s that acquired knowledge that, permeating up through the organisation, keeps its leaders focused on its members’ needs.

Having moved through roles as an organiser, negotiator and manager to lead the FDA, Penman is determined to retain and strengthen those links between the local and the national. Only that crucial connection with the frontline, he believes, can ensure that the General Secretary understands how to develop and strengthen the union and protect its ability to defend its members’ interests in a very difficult period for the labour movement.

“It’s easy to get into an ivory tower,” he comments. “There are lots of challenges in running the organisation, and in dealing with ministers or permanent secretaries, and you’ve got to force yourself to go back down and ensure that you’re in touch with what’s going on throughout the organisation.

“That’s one of the advantages of having 18,000 members rather than 800,000: everyone’s got my email address, and they can contact me with complaints or challenges or ideas,” Penman adds. And he gives his email address: a handle as down to earth as the General Secretary himself. “The email’s dave@fda.org.uk,” he says. “Write to me!”

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