Government grad scheme officials consider strike action

Talks over pay for the Fast Stream programme – which contains a strong DDaT contingent – have stalled

Credit: Ali Mokhtari/Pixabay

Officials participating in government’s graduate scheme for future leaders could join other groups of civil servants to pursue strike action.

Talks between the FDA union and the Cabinet Office’s Fast Stream and Emerging Talent (FSET) programme – a key source of digital and data talent for departments – have reached an impasse over the department’s offer of a 3% pay rise.

The FDA union is gearing up to launch an indicative ballot on strikes, after 95.5% of its Fast Stream members said they would not accept the 3% rise offered by FSET this summer

The vast majority – 86.3% – of fast streamers who took part in the FDA’s consultative poll said they would be willing to walk out to secure an increase above 3%, PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World exclusively revealed.

The FDA said negotiations over pay for fast streamers have now “been exhausted”, and it will soon be launching an indicative ballot on strike action, with a statutory ballot likely to follow.

The warning comes as after around 100,000 members of the PCS union voted to strike over pay and other employment terms, with 86.2% of civil servants who voted backing industrial action.

The FDA, which represents mid-to-senior-level civil servants, polled its Fast Stream members this summer on whether they would accept a 3% pay increase and if they would be willing to take industrial action to get a higher rise.

After members overwhelmingly rejected the offer, the FDA attempted to negotiate a higher deal with FSET.

But Lauren Crowley, the union’s national officer for the Fast Stream, said: “Despite further talks with the employer and the Cabinet Office, they have refused to amend their offer. We have now reached the conclusion that we have exhausted opportunities to resolve this through negotiation. The FDA has consistently pressed for the Fast Stream’s long-term structural pay issues to be addressed through a pay business case submitted this year, but the employer has refused to consider this. Instead, with inflation running in double figures and a cost-of-living crisis compounding the existing poor deal for fast streamers, our members were offered a pay uplift of just 3% which leaves many of our members struggling to make ends meet.”

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A separate poll of Fast Stream civil servants – which included non-union members – by the FDA this summer found deep concerns over pay. Half of the 818 responses fast streamers who responded said they were relying on financial support from their family, 95% feeling undervalued and one in nine having a second job.

Seven out of 10 said they want their pay to be equal or comparable to equivalent non-Fast Stream roles across the civil service. Four in five said pay has a negative impact on their wellbeing, and around two-thirds rejected FSET’s claim that the learning and development opportunities they receive make up for low pay. Additionally, seven out of eight said they had considered leaving the Fast Stream over low pay.

“Any decision to strike will be a hugely difficult one for our members, but the current situation is completely unacceptable and unsustainable,” Crowley said. “Fast streamers carry out vital roles in ensuring the smooth functioning of government and delivery of public services, yet are so poorly paid they are skipping meals and relying on family just to get by. This cannot go on, and that is why we are now taking the next step towards industrial action by launching an indicative ballot of FDA Fast Stream members.”

Tech talent
Finding talent for the digital, data and technology profession is a key strand of the graduate talent scheme; of the 1,072 people that comprised the Fast Stream’s 2021 intake, 100 joined the specialised DDaT track. This made the digital profession the second-most popular specialism, behind only project-management, which recruited 103 fast streamers.

Speaking at the PublicTechnology Live event earlier this year, Sonia Pawson, head of  FSET, said that instilling tech and data skills in the senior officials of the future is a key objective of the programme.

“What we realise is that, in time you won’t be able to progress to be a senior civil servant without experience and expertise, for example, in using big data for policy or operational purposes, or in leading a digital project,” she said.

When it was announced that the scheme was to be suspended as part of ministers’ plans to shrink civil service headcount, union leaders warned that doing so would deprive government of crucial technical skills.

Speaking in June, Garry Graham, deputy general secretary at the Prospect union, said “The government’s reform agenda highlights the importance of STEM and data skills and the need for the civil service to promote new thinking and recruit the best and the brightest. This announcement [to suspend Fast Stream] runs counter to that.”

Following a raft of ministerial changes, the graduate programme is now set to be relaunched next month.

The Fast Stream website says: “Recruitment to the Fast Stream was paused while the government looked at different options for reducing costs. During this period work to reform and improve the scheme continued – resulting in the implementation of a better core training offer and more efficient delivery model. Following this work, we are excited to announce the Fast Stream will resume recruitment for 2023 in December. Keep an eye on the Fast Stream website for more details on the recruitment window. If you have previously expressed interest in the Fast Stream restart date, we will contact you directly as soon as possible.”

Industrial action
The FDA’s steps towards industrial action follow significant movement from other civil service unions.

Following a national statutory ballot, the PCS union is set to lead to strikes at 126 government employers unless ministers make “significant” steps to meet its demands, which include an across-the-board pay rise of 10% and a halt to attempts to reduce redundancy payouts.

Prospect, which represents public sector professionals, has also taken steps towards industrial action recently. The union is holding an online indicative ballot of its civil service members to gauge whether they want to take strike action over pay, staffing and redundancy terms.

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to engaging with staff and the unions on this issue. Public sector pay awards must strike the balance between recognising our excellent public sector workers whilst delivering value for the taxpayer and keeping government spending at affordable levels.”


Sam Trendall

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