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FRONT LINE FIRST - CHRISTMAS CHEER

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Those of us who read the newspapers over Christmas will have seen the prime minister's message thanking everyone in...
Those of us who read the newspapers over Christmas will have seen the prime minister's message thanking everyone in the public sector working over the holiday period. While it is all too easy to be cynical about political statements, the point he made is a valid one - all year round.

Those of us who have spent most of our careers in the rarefied atmosphere of policy-making and administration can all too easily forget that the public knows little of what we do. In the Dog and Duck, a council is rarely judged by the brilliance of its strategic planning. When people judge their council, it is usually the activities of a few, relatively low-paid, front-line staff they think of.

If all of this is true, how do senior managers and politicians respond? Given we are increasingly judged on customer satisfaction, it follows we should be investing in the very people who generate this satisfaction - the front-line staff. But each year sees increasing budgetary pressure and many councils face a year-on-year struggle to deliver higher levels of achievement against a background of declining resources and increasing expectation. The temptation is often to cut central costs and put more money into front-line services.

This sounds fine in principle, but the effect can be damaging. One of the first casualties can be the training and development budgets front-line staff rely on to give them the skills and support needed to do their jobs well.

It is because of this dilemma that I think it is worth looking at an initiative, begun last year. The Institute of Customer Service, along with the Office of Public Services Reform and several professional societies, came together to look at ways of ensuring the development needs of front-line staff can be met in a professional, helpful and cost-effective way.

This initiative promotes the idea that customer service is a skilled job in its own right and the staff who undertake it deserve to be valued, respected and properly equipped. The programme has been successfully piloted in a few councils and the private sector, and it is now open to other councils .

While training leading to a proper qualification is not the answer to all our ills, it is useful. After all, public sector workers are not just for Christmas.

David Clark

Director general,

Society of Local Authority Chief Executives

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