In the UK, the government and opposition are competing to show how they will make life harder for jobless people and immigrants. Elsewhere in the world, too, politicians continue to unveil measures which target the poor and marginalised, including cuts in benefits and access to public services.
Quick-fix solutions are offered to complex social problems; those who are chronically sick, disabled or jobless, people uprooted from their homes by destitution or war and minorities of various kinds are scapegoated. This helps distract the wider public from the shortcomings in their societies and from their own vulnerability.
This is not to say that all public service reforms are bad: far from it. However even the advances that have been made in some fields, and good ideas which can better direct resources and reduce waste, may arouse suspicion when they are linked with programmes which have been designed with minimal involvement from those in greatest need and little sensitivity to the realities of their lives.
The most obvious victims are those at the receiving end and their families. They may experience not only heightened insecurity and material hardship but also stigma. The resulting poverty and stress can, among other things, cause health problems, including increasing the risk of heart disease.
But public sector workers, and staff in voluntary and private sector organisations which contract to deliver public services, often suffer too. For some, their jobs are just a source of income or an opportunity to exercise power over people seeking help. Yet for others, their work is a vocation in which acting justly and making life better for people in need are crucially important.
Whether people of an explicit faith or humanists, there is a spiritual dimension to their daily activities, a satisfaction gained from doing their jobs well and seeing service users leading happier, healthier, more fulfilling lives. This may compensate for the unpleasantness, drudgery and disappointment which they all too often face.
It can be profoundly harmful when public service workers are required by the government and senior management to withhold support from people in dire need – whether as part of a crackdown on ‘cheats’ and ‘scroungers’ or those who have ‘brought their troubles on themselves’, as part of a drive for ‘efficiency savings’ or simply because of a new policy the implications of which have not been properly considered.
Some staff may cope by using their initiative and ingenuity to find ways round the system to help their clients, taking pleasure in small victories over what they see as callousness or pointless bureaucracy imposed from on high. Others may feel undermined and humiliated, their self-worth as well as the value of the people they serve called into question.
Perhaps even more damaging, some staff – including senior managers – may absorb the values of a harsher system. Clients may be seen as mere units, stripped of personal characteristics, or as nuisances, threatening to get in the way of achieving targets and thus jeopardising staff chances of getting promotion or even staying in work.
Staff who spend too long with a vulnerable person, or are too soft-hearted to turn away a high enough proportion of applicants, may be dubbed inefficient, while those who protest too forcefully may be targeted. It may seem sensible to compromise, to go along with the way things are. In time the new values may become internalised, and people who entered public service with high ideals may find these eroded or corrupted, while some of their colleagues sink into depression or bitter anger. Advocacy organisations too may fear losing state assistance or tax relief and so underplay the hardship which results from damaging policies and spending cuts.
Much of the solution will probably come from action by those who face repression or are denied benefits or services and by frontline staff, especially where alliances can be formed. Yet others can help.
Faith organisations may need to tread carefully if they are to be credible, since sometimes criticism of the public sector can seem to be based on self-interest, a bid to take over provision of public services or a lament for a mythical golden age of theocracy when political leaders did what religious leaders told them to do and everything was harmonious.
However faith communities, and networks where ethical issues are discussed, can open up space where those damaged by rules and policies which institutionalise inhospitality and ungraciousness can be heard. This includes staff required to put such rules and policies into practice. Perspectives different from the propaganda that justifies harsh measures can thus be shared more widely and debate encouraged.
Deeper study of the reasons why so many experience insecurity and preventable hardship in a world of abundant wealth can be carried out, and acts of solidarity undertaken.
Secular institutions like trade unions can also create space for staff to talk about the spiritual dimensions of their work, how it feels to be expected to act in certain ways towards vulnerable people.
Sometimes protests over pay and conditions may mask a deeper uneasiness: low wages and grotty surroundings may seem like a dismissal of the worth of clients and staff alike. This may seem ‘airy-fairy’ compared with the language of pay rates, yet it is important to recognise that many people seek jobs in public service largely because they feel drawn to that type of work, and some now feel their capacity to do good is being undermined.
The wider public has a stake in this, not only because almost anyone may find themselves in need of public services at some time but also because the ethos of society, how its members relate to one another and what kind of people we are, are affected by what we allow our rulers to do in our name. What happens in hospitals and schools, municipal offices and airports, police stations and prisons directly or indirectly affects us all.
© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities and is a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. She is author of ‘Re-writing history’, a research paper on the row within global Anglicanism: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/rewriting_history