Public Sector Management: Valiant service at the front

Battered by verbal abuse and even physical attacks, public employees are getting guidelines for survival against the hostile queue at the front counter
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The Independent Online
EVERY WEEK, about 20 members of the health service and five post office workers - both men and women - are attacked by the people they are supposed to serve. What is more, these reported incidents are being recognised today as just the tip of the iceberg as public sector employees face almost daily verbal abuse, intimidation and harassment.

A housing officer, who gave his name simply as Jim, recalls a case from a couple of years back: 'A tenant came into the housing office where I was working, carrying all his cooking utensils - including large knives. He said the place in which he was living didn't have proper cooking facilities, and he demanded to be rehoused. Then he started to shower the reception area with pots and pans, food and knives.'

Incidents such as this resurrect the memory of an isolated tragedy a little more than a year ago when planning officer Harry Collinson was shot dead in County Durham by a man who was defying building regulations.

Gauging the actual extent of the problem is difficult. 'Most violent attacks on staff aren't reported to anyone official,' says a spokeswoman for the Health and Safety Executive.

The most recent British Crime Survey revealed that 36 per cent of threats to employees were work-related and that 92 per cent came from the public.

'We were surprised at how high the figure was for work-related threats,' says Marie Power, responsible for the HSE's policy on workplace violence. As a result the HSE produced guidelines on how to handle violence at work, recommending that employers record and classify incidents against staff, decide on preventative measures, implement them, and then check that the measures work.

At Leicester City Council, Cathy Carter has researched the needs of 'front-line employees' - from housing staff to receptionists - as part of the council's 'customer care' policy.

'One of the issues that came out clearly was that staff wanted to know their rights: how much were they supposed to take?' she said.

'They wanted clear guidelines and support from their line managers, who hadn't necessarily given them clear enough instructions.'

She said she found that the staff members most under threat were 'those who were providing the most essential services - money and housing'.

Leicester's housing department now has a reporting mechanism and formal procedure. The response depends on the seriousness of the attack. The tenant involved may only get a letter from the council, or the council's legal department may be brought in - or the case might be passed on to the police.

Linda Litchfield, assistant director of management, said: 'Now we also include as a condition of tenancy that, if a tenant abuses, attacks or threatens a member of staff, we are entitled to take action. It's a way of supporting the officer and showing it's not just a paper exercise.'

Action can vary from a warning, to a notice seeking possession and ultimately termination of the tenancy. The council has also run courses for staff on dealing with aggression, improving interviewing techniques, and self-defence.

Similar steps have been taken at Dorset County Council, where the results of a staff survey on violence at work surprised the county personnel officer, Don Coombes. 'There was a much bigger problem than we expected. For example, service staff in the library were facing intimidation; there were also attacks on trading standards officers, college clerical staff and a court officer.'

Dorset previously had an unofficial reporting procedure which registered 110 incidents of abuse in 1987-88. But when a working party was set up to deal with the problem, the figure rose to more than 200. As well as giving 'general advice and training' and issuing personal alarms, Dorset changed its reception areas and interview rooms - and improved its arrangements for home visiting - so that staff are not left alone.

'We've got rid of heavy glass ashtrays, which could have been used as missiles. There's a glass panel in the door so that colleagues can keep an eye on what's happening. The interviewer always sits nearest the door. And there are panic buttons,' said Mr Coombes.

Leicester and Dorset were the subjects of a research project on violence at work undertaken for the Local Government Management Board by Dr Celia Phillips and Dr Jan Stockdale, researchers from the London School of Economics. A follow-up survey of 235 local authorities, published last year in the Municipal Journal, showed that these two councils were not alone in recognising the issue: 75 per cent of the respondents were aware of the problem; some 52 per cent of them had policies to combat violence towards staff, and 19 per cent planned to implement them. But almost one in three councils had no policy to deal with violent attacks from the public.

Nalgo, the local government officers' union, is aware that attitudes to the issue of workplace violence vary tremendously - as do the solutions. 'There is no panacea,' said health and safety officer Anne Greaves, who added that she would be surprised if violence against public sector staff was not on the increase, because 'pressures on both clients and staff have increased enormously'.

Nalgo warns that staff will report incidents only if they are 'confident about the reception that such a report will receive from management, and that it will lead to some action'.

Often, says the union, staff fear that 'involvement in a violent incident will be seen as their failure, or their mishandling of the situation, and will be regarded as professional incompetence'.

This issue has been tackled in local authorities' guidance to their staff. Coventry council, whose booklet won praise from the LSE researchers, tells staff that 'an incident of assault should not be seen as a reflection of your ability'. Kensington and Chelsea sets out techniques for staff to control violence, such as: 'Keep talking slowly using level tones. Maintain eye contact. Do not deny the problem or your part in it. Try to help - or find someone who can.'

Although welcoming employers' action on the problem, Nalgo is wary of 'easy solutions' such as giving staff personal alarms or installing panic buttons under desks. It questions whether using an alarm may escalate violence, and whether staff might be seen 'as nuisances or incompetents' for pressing panic buttons.

Council drives to improve services, and initiatives like the Citizens' Charter, have added a new dimension to the problem. Being held responsible for delivering services is a double-edged sword for staff in the front line.

'We tell employees that if they are apprehensive about giving their names, for example, they should just use first names,' said Marie Power at the HSE.

Jim, the housing officer, added: 'Many people in public services work near where they live, so they can be identified. I know someone who was attacked while out shopping.'

The dangers of being identified with the service are echoed by Chris Cardy in his book, Personal Safety: a Training Resource Manual, which is published by Gower on 19 November: 'In local government, the work often involves enforcement, such as trading standards and environmental health. And often it's about territory - personal power and space - and decisions being forced onto people by others. It can easily escalate.'

For Jim, increased awareness of the problem by employers has come too late; he moved to another job, away from the counter service, but says he sees no sign of the situation improving. 'There is a conflict in the whole idea that people on our side of the counter are there to help you. Most of the time they are policing dwindling resources. It breeds a very sour relationship with the people who are on the other side of the counter.

'The public haven't understood that public services have shrunk. They don't expect less. There is a feeling that people are entitled to get what they want - now - whether it's planning permission or a council house.'

(Photograph omitted)

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