Friday, 15 November 2013

Could it happen here...

I was fossicking on The Irish Economy site, mostly to follow-up on the news that Ireland plans to come off the IMF/EU life-support machine next month, and I came across a post by Trinity professor Philip Lane, 'Public-Private Wage Gaps: EU Evidence'. This in turn took me to the source paper, a European Commission Economics Paper, 'The gap between public and private wages: new evidence for the EU', which is summarised here and available in full as a pdf here.

Here's the key finding.

Start with the bottom line. Reading left to right, the first column, 'Total difference', is the percentage difference between wage rates in the public sector and the private sector across the whole European Union. On average wage rates are 10.5% higher in the public sector (or were, anyway, on these 2010 numbers). The second column is how much of this premium can be explained by a vector of the usual suspects - education levels, age, occupation, level in the managerial hierarchy and what have you. As it happens, 6.9% of the EU-wide public sector premium of 10.5% can be explained by these compositional effects. And that leaves the third column, the 'unexplained' part of the premium, which I'm going to interpret as the extra wages you get merely for being in the public sector.

I've highlighted Ireland in yellow. Enough has been said already about the fiscal indiscipline of Irish administrations during the Celtic Tiger days, so I won't belabour it, but I will just observe that the Irish were the most profligate in the entire EU for overpaying public sector staff (by 21.2%), edging out Cyprus (20.9%) and Luxembourg (20.4%). It's noticeable, too, that all the PIIGS showed the same pattern of showering largesse on the public sector - Portugal (PT, 11.9% premium), Ireland (IE, 21.2%, as we saw), Italy (IT, 10.5%), Greece (GR, 8.2%) and Spain (ES, 15.1%).

You might conclude that the fix is wage cuts (as the Irish have since done) or at least a prolonged wage pause in the public sector until the premium is eroded by increases in the private sector. As the authors note, though, it's not that straightforward. There are systematic patterns to the overpayments: as they say (p28), "although a positive wage gap is found for public sector workers, this is mainly
concentrated on lower-skilled workers, typically occupying lower job positions", which in turn means that "fiscal consolidation measures aiming at reducing the public wage bill may find difficult trade-offs between the efficiency and equity goals".

Two thoughts.

One, I suspect the wage premium is only part of the EU overpayment picture, and if the full compensation package of relatively cushy job security, relatively generous pension arrangements, and contractual pay increases based on tenure* rather than performance were included, the comparison would tip even more in favour of the public sector.

And two, of course, you wonder, could it happen here? My first guess is, possibly not. If we're "most like" the UK in our arrangements, then maybe not - the UK shows as paying people marginally less (-1.3%) in the public sector (though that excludes the notoriously good pension deal many UK public sector staff enjoy). And anytime I've been involved in employment decisions in the New Zealand public sector, there have typically been attempts made to do a genuine like-for-like comparability exercise with what the job would pay in the private sector.

Those appointments, though, tended to be at the more senior levels, and on the EU showing, that's not typically where the gravy train is. It's lower down.

So it's still an open question. Anyone know of any evidence?

*As an aside, my father, a lifelong Irish public servant, once tried to prevent one of those payments (an "increment", in Irish civil service jargon) to one of his non-performing staff. It nearly caused a constitutional crisis.


  1. John Gibson's paper on same for nz here linked.

  2. Brilliant! Thanks - I'll read this over the weekend