IN THE public mind, civil servants now occupy a place that is uncomfortably close to that reserved for some of the miscreant elite in banking and politics who oversaw the country's economic ruin. It's not a place they would want to be and they certainly don't all deserve the unwelcome honour.
They find themselves in this position because of the job security, pay levels and pensions they enjoy and which their unions jealously protect. For reasons that don't bear scrutiny, this was deemed acceptable in better times. We are far removed from the good times now, in fact the state of the nation has rarely been so bad, and people are of no mind to maintain a cosseted workforce who are seen as demanding much and delivering little. Public sentiment on this is fed by an almost daily diet of media revelations about public service pay and working conditions that are becoming increasingly remote from the altogether harsher reality faced by private sector workers.
Among the latest revelations - courtesy of last weekend's Sunday Independent - we are told that the HSE will spend €266 million in pay increases, topups, on-call and overtime payments this year. All of this is protected under the Croke Park agreement and public service trade unions are happy to assert that an ' incremental pay increase does not equal a pay increase. In other words a person gets an increase in pay but not a pay increase, which is a ridiculous exercise in semantics.
Despite Government promises of reform, this kind of carry on is rampant in the public service and it is a cause of huge anger, particularly following the slash and burn budget that has just been imposed.
There is a growing 'us and them' feeling between private and public sector workers that is neither healthy nor always fair. Many civil servants are hard working, dedicated and conscientious. Our school kids are fortunate to have teachers who, in general, care about providing a good education; patients leaving hospitals are often unable to say enough about the care they received from doctors and nurses. But all of this is forgotten in our frustration at paying more than we can afford for a public service that fears and resist change and it will only get worse unless the Government succeeds in bringing about real change.
In any private enterprise where costs exceed revenue, cuts are imposed and people are made redundant. It isn't nice and it isn't fair on the workers who lose their jobs but it can make the difference between surviving and going bust in a harsh business world.
As a nation we can't afford our public service as it is currently structured - there simply aren't enough taxpayers to pay so much in wages to so many people. We must either reduce the numbers drastically or preferably reduce civil servants' pay. But after almost two years of tinkering, the Government still hasn't got this problem under control and a public that is taxed to the hilt is becoming increasingly frustrated. It is to be hoped that the New Year will see a new resolve to tackle the issue before public servants become the nation's new figures of hate.