Ben Goldacre debunks media claims about the Public Sector "gravy train"

Ben Goldacre debunks media claims about the Public Sector "gravy train"

Some of you may have noticed a pair of stories in the Sunday Times and the Telegraph respectively claiming that "public sector pay is racing ahead in the recession".

The stories claim that public sector workers earn on average 7% more than their counterparts in the private sector, despite declining productivity. The message is straightforward enough. In the words of Graeme Leach, chief economist and director of policy at the Institute of Directors, “It is ridiculous that pay and perks have risen when public sector productivity has fallen. This gravy train now has to come to an end.” Given all the major parties are committed to significant cuts in public expenditure and services, such claims look set to provide the backdrop to attacks on the pay and conditions of public sector workers. The government set out its plans in its pre-budget report, announcing a 1% pay rise cap across the public sector for 2011-12 and 2012-13.

However popular science writer and debunker of cranks and dubious media claims Ben Goldacre has written an excellent article for the Guardian available on his blog effectively taking apart the evidence used to back up the claims. Its well worth a read.

Posted By

Jan 13 2010 18:08


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Jan 13 2010 19:07

yeah seen this the other day, was a pretty interesting debunk

Jan 13 2010 20:05

I read the story in the Sunday Times in the pub the other day, it was absolutely outrageous. Usually the media attacks one aspect of public sector workers - that article attacked them/us on absolutely everything: pay too high, too many workers, too low productivity, too high sickness and too high pensions.

It was completely disgusting, and as amply demonstrated by Ben Goldacre, completely bogus.

One thing which Goldacre omits to mention, but which is extremely significant, is that large amounts of the lowest paid workers in the public sector have been privatised over the past few years. This would cause a significant rise in the median public sector wage, and significant fall in the private sector. For example, in my council all cleaners, janitors, street cleaners, binmen, and most school dinner ladies have been privatised - and they were all pretty much the lowest paid workers in the Council.

For reference, his complete article I will paste here:


Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 8 January 2009

“Public sector pay races ahead in a recession” shouted the front page of this week’s Sunday Times. “Public sector workers earn 7% more on average than their peers in the private sector — a pay gulf that has more than doubled since the recession began.” The Telegraph followed up with a copycat story a few hours later.

In reality, this is one of those interesting areas where anybody who makes a firm statement is wrong, because there is not sufficient evidence to make a confident assertion in either direction.

The Sunday Times have identified a difference in the median pay of all public sector employees in the country, when compared with all the private sector employees in the country, and overextrapolated from there to claim that – job for job –public sector employees are paid more than their peers in the private sector.

We will discuss whether that figure is worse than useless in a moment.

But first, some interesting details. For their analysis the Times use “annual salary” instead of “hourly pay”, although the latter is clearly more meaningful, especially since the Times quote the annual salary figures for part-time and full-time employees, all mixed together, but 31% of public sector jobs are part-time, against 23% of private sector jobs. In fact, quoting “hourly salary” would also have made the difference between the public and private sector median wages look even bigger. So why did the Times and the Telegraph use annual pay?

image Perhaps because this figure makes the difference in medians look like a new phenomenon under the present government. Using the hourly figures, you can see that public sector median pay has been higher than private sector hourly pay for years. If you go to the “Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings” data on the ONS website which the Times used, you can see for yourself. It was £7.98 vs £6.72 in 1997 under the previous government, a difference of almost 20%, and £8.56 vs £7.32 in 1999. Meanwhile the “annual salary” difference which the Times chose to use was negligible in 1999 (the first year ONS gave this figure), at £15,002 vs £14,963, a difference of 0.3%, allowing them to create this illusion of a brand new phenomenon (for example, see their graphic, here).

More than that, using the “annual salary” figure allows the Times to claim dramatically that the difference has doubled in 2 years: the difference in medians for annual pay has gone from 3.8% to 6.8% since 2007, while the difference in hourly pay has gone from 25.1% to 28.7%, which is much less eye-catching.

“By a whole range of measures,” the Times continues: “public sector employees are also enjoying better working conditions. Last year the average public sector worker laboured for 35 hours a week… 2 hours less than the typical private sector worker.”

Is this really down to laziness, and better working conditions? No. Again, this is simply due to the greater number of part time jobs in the public sector – 31% vs 23% – which is a longstanding phenomenon.

But there is a deeper problem with the analysis in the Sunday Times and the Telegraph. The longstanding difference in median wage for all jobs in each sector is hardly informative on the question of whether someone is paid more or less than their peer in the other sector. Firstly, it’s hard to decide what the comparison job is for a policeman, a fireman, a teacher, and so on.

Secondly, to make that comparison between medians meaningful you’d need data showing the breakdown of what kinds of jobs are done in each sector. Because it’s possible, after all, that the state employs more people in more senior or middling roles, and fewer people in the kinds of jobs you find at the absolute bottom of the employment ladder.

If you like, for an illustration, we can poke around the ONS ASHE data again. The national median hourly wage is £11.03. If you take table 14_5a of the ASHE 2009 data, re-order it by wage, and look at the bottom 3 categories with over a million people in them, as a rough illustration, we have: 1,126,000 sales and retail assistants on a median hourly wage of £6.36; 1,355,000 cashiers at £6.40; 1,430,000 in sales at £6.45.

None of these are jobs you find in the public sector, although there are also cleaners at the low wage end of this table. If someone here was quoting data comparing public/private wages for the same kind of cleaning jobs, say, then that would be interesting. There’s no such data on offer. But as the Times says: “our reports today show, the public sector has become so big and such a generous employer that it is sucking workers out of private companies”. I don’t see how they can justify this, other than with their laughable case studies, and if it’s true, it should be an longstanding trend, not a new one.

I could go on. It’s not surprising if public sector pay increased from what it used to be, under this government: improving recruitment for teachers and the like was a manifesto promise. But as for a comparison, I don’t know if the public sector pays more than the private sector for the same work, or less: nobody does, from a difference in median wages. Meanwhile I do know that this was one of the most statistically misleading front page stories I have seen in a long time. It’s going to be a fun election.

Jan 13 2010 20:28

in fairness he did mention that those jobs were the only type you'd really find in both public and private sector (though you're right about it skewing the median wage), whereas most other professions don't really have equivalents in the opposite sector