30 October 2008

Low calibre staff

The front page of the latest edition of Transit carries a story about civil servants working at the Department for Transport (DfT). The headline says that the National Audit Office (NAO) has concluded that the DfT requires "high calibre staff" to negotiate with the train operating companies (TOCs). This all sounds fair enough until you read the piece itself.

Essentially the NAO is worried that the TOCs will take the DfT for a ride over their franchises and the amount of money they'll receive from the DfT if the department only employs low calibre staff. Every company, be they privately owned or not, wants to ensure its workforce comprises the very best in the business, so I was partly shocked and partly welcoming of the NAO's candidness:

"The NAO noted that the comparatively low salaries paid to civil servants and the DfT's unattractive image meant it has had problems attracting high calibre staff."

"The department has difficulty in recruiting and retaining experienced and skilled staff, particularly in its rail directorate... so there is a risk of insufficient capacity or the wrong mix of skills to operate effectively in the future."

Comments like these are not going to help morale at the DfT one bit, and at a time when the PM has made numerous pleas to businesses for restraint when awarding pay rises to its workers, is it not a little controversial for the NAO to suggest more money needs to be offered to attract higher calibre employees?

It was the Conservative government who privatised the railways and through a decade of indecision by the Labour, could it now be argued that the government are fearful that the TOCs are in a very strong position to maximise their profits further (as a result of increased revenue following the 1,300 extra carriages being provided by the DfT next year), while at the same time being powerful enough to run rings around the government's transport arm in order to squeeze as much money out of Whitehall as possible?

If so, then surely what the NAO is suggesting - as negative as it is for those employed by the DfT - is a sensible strategy to adopt to ensure the tax payer is not taken for a ride by the privatised rail companies.