"There is too much of a master and servant culture in British workplaces"

Too often, managers see employee engagement as only for the good times, says the RSA's Matthew Taylor.

by Matthew Taylor
Last Updated: 01 May 2019

I have spent most of my adult life – in a political party, in government and running two influential think tanks – trying to make a difference. So you might have thought there would be a long list of things I can credibly claim to have made happen. Sadly, there isn’t.

I was a middle-ranking part of the team that got Tony Blair elected in 1997, but, let’s face it, he was going to win anyway. I worked with David Miliband to pull together Labour’s winning election manifesto in 2005. It was a strong policy document and more readable than most offerings, but my job was more about compiling than devising. Until 2010 I would have claimed some credit for the Children’s Trust Fund: a project to give every child a savings account with a few hundred pounds at birth. But it was one of the first victims of austerity.

So earlier this month I admit that something that went virtually unnoticed by the world caused me great joy. The Commons passed several pieces of secondary legislation implementing measures recommended in the 2017 Review of Modern Working Practices [the Taylor Review], which I undertook for the Prime Minister. Among these were changes to the Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) regulations.

Based on an EU directive, these regulations were introduced by the Labour government in 2005 with much talk of them heralding a new, more partnership-based model of workplace relations. The regulations give employees the right, subject to certain conditions, to request that their employer set up arrangements to inform and consult them about issues in the organisation. Generally, this means establishing a representative staff forum to go alongside other ways of informing and engaging employees.

But ICE has, until now, been a damp squib. Employers have been lukewarm, either because they think their existing HR strategies already cover the bases or because they are hostile to even this most modest version of partnership. Nor have the trade unions pushed take up. They tend to think ICE is second best to collective bargaining.

The other reason is the threshold for employees to request ICE be put in place. At 10 per cent of the company workforce (not workplace but the whole workforce), it’s a high hurdle. It’s also the same threshold for trade union recognition. From the union’s perspective, if they can get 10 per cent support why not go for the full-fat rather than the semi-skimmed version of worker voice?

Early on in my review for the government I said I wanted to lower the threshold. As time went on it became a mission for me. It wasn’t that my fellow review members, or Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy officials who supported our work, were hostile; they just weren’t that interested.

But, to the point of tedium, I insisted and in the end my report recommended a reduction from 10 per cent to two per cent. There then followed a year-and-a-half of detailed conversations about implementing the plan including two formal responses by the government. Again, pushing against indifference, I had to keep the pressure on. Now, assuming the Lords confirm the legislation and no one else comes along in the next few years to repeal it, I will, for the first time, proudly be able to claim a real-world impact. 

But that’s only the first part of the battle. The next will be working with a range of organisations to promote take-up of the new regulations. In doing this we will argue that ICE provides some rigour to the more general commitment to engagement made by most employers. As a member of the government’s Industrial Strategy Council I am leading on a joint RSA Future of Work Centre/Carnegie UK project exploring the evidence linking engagement to higher labour productivity.

But, whatever the business case, it is important that a commitment to talk with employees and to gather their views is underpinned by rights. Too often managers see engagement as for the good times and marginalise it when tough decisions need to be made. Having ICE forums, or other consultative structures, ensures that employees have somewhere safe and recognised to go to raise concerns about management. To see how important that might be think of the issues thrown up by the #MeToo movement.

But there is an even broader context. In my 2017 report I offered five reasons why good work should be a national goal. Perhaps the least obvious of these related to the fractured relationship between citizens and institutions. I argued that there is disconnect between what we say to citizens about their voice in society – that they should get involved, be respected and be heard – and what we say about the employment relationship. There is too much of a master and servant culture in British workplaces in which the implicit contract is "I pay you, so you do what you are told without question."

In the wake of Brexit and in the face of wider issues of polarisation, the rise of populism and deepening social pessimism, we urgently need democratic and civic renewal. At the RSA we argue that there are many ways to build a more participative society, including greater devolution and the wider use of deliberative democratic methods. But enthusiastically taking a step toward greater partnership at work could also be an important part of healing our fractured nation.  

Image credit: O12 907/Pixabay

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