Marcus Evans Group | Worldwide Headquarters | American Offices | Latin America | European Offices | African / Asian Offices

Letters: Public service choice: cuts or ethics?

Two reports printed side by side yesterday raise serious questions about a worrying loss of moral compass in the management of public services, as austerity measures bite deep. On the one hand, we hear the leader of Basildon council claiming he is “duty-bound to uphold the law” by evicting the Dale Farm Travellers (Travellers lose battle against Dale Farm eviction, 1 September), while a judge rules that this is “efficient and fair” although the Travellers have no suitable place to relocate. On the other, there is the tragic suicide of David White (Council legal chief killed himself amid work stress, 1 September), unable to cope with overseeing cuts in local services which compromised his ethical beliefs and the integrity of local democratic processes.

Both stories highlight a context in which economic value – efficiency, profitability, reduced social spending – is erasing ethical values: effectiveness, social purpose and the meeting of needs. As sociologist Christophe Dejours commented on a wave of similar workplace suicides in France in 2007, it is economic rationality which drives workers to such tragic acts, resting on principles that are “highly dubious on a moral and practical level”.

Our research on Connexions youth support workers, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, revealed shocking findings about management pressures on frontline workers to breach professional ethics in order to meet government targets, in a context of wholly inadequate resourcing for the service. This created high levels of stress, prompting some staff to quit their jobs, while others lost theirs for refusing to comply. We know that similar conditions are affecting many others in public service. All this evidence shows an urgent need for public debate about questions of morality in times of austerity, and for an ethical stance based on the meeting of human need rather than economic rationality.

Professor Helen Colley

Manchester Metropolitan University © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds