Public sector use of collective conciliation

Newsletter articles

1 Sep 2012

Employment Studies Issue 16

Andrea Broughton, Principal Research Fellow

Andrea BroughtonResolving workplace disputes quickly and efficiently is likely to be a priority for all organisations. However, the way in which managers go about this can differ significantly - some may prefer to use in-house resources and tools in order to settle disputes, whereas others may feel that turning to external expertise gets the best results.

Research carried out for Acas in 2010 looking at the use of collective conciliation among negotiators found that those in the public sector are less likely to have used Acas collective conciliation than those in the private sector and those negotiating in both sectors. Given that this seemed, at first glance, rather counterintuitive, Acas commissioned IES to conduct a small research project looking at whether this is also the case for public sector managers and, if so, to unpack the reasons why.

Based on interviews with 15 senior human resources staff in public sector organisations in local government, central government, the health sector, universities and colleges, our research asked interviewees about their experiences of collective conciliation and if they have not used it, or would not use it, why this was the case.

Eight of the 15 interviewees had used the Acas collective conciliation service, with many stating that they had turned to conciliation when they had reached a point of real impasse, and specifically in order to avoid industrial action or further industrial action. One organisation felt that it was no longer in a position to be able to resolve the issue in hand without external help.

Reasons for not using collective conciliation

When asked why they might not be willing to use collective conciliation in the future, interviewees gave a range of responses. Many felt that, because they had what were felt to be very good, tried and tested internal procedures to deal with collective employment disputes, it followed that they simply did not need to call in a third party in order to resolve issues. In addition, where good relationships with trade unions existed (and trade union density is higher in the public sector than in the private sector, meaning that trade unions are more likely to be present), it was felt that the parties involved would be able to settle issues between themselves. This firm basis of relationships also meant that the parties were less likely to come to an impasse where the only option would be external assistance.

Some managers spoke of a fear of losing control of a dispute if they brought in an external party, which may result in a solution with which they would not agree and while it would not necessarily be binding, they would feel pressured to accept.

Linked to this, there was also a perception that resolving disputes is a core competence of a manager's job and this should therefore not be ceded to a third party - if this were the case, the manager would have failed in some way to do their job. Fear of being seen to have failed professionally was cited as a major reason why a public sector HR manager would not want to turn to Acas or another external party to resolve a dispute.

Some interviewees pointed to the fact that public sector organisations are often exposed to political pressures that can make it more difficult for managers to take autonomous decisions: there was therefore a fear that an external party would not appreciate organisation-specific pressures and limitations.

Overall, there were no patterns of differences between the various parts of the public sector represented in the sample, although managers in local government did tend to stress that their organisations operated in a sensitive political context, meaning that they were reluctant to work with an external party which might not fully understand the local political context.


It is clear that HR professionals in the public sector operate in a different environment from their counterparts in the private sector - where interviewees had worked in both public and private sectors, they were able to give interesting insights into both. This study has shed some light on the reasons why public sector HR managers might be reluctant, or do not feel that they need to turn to an external party for collective conciliation.

Acas is trying to work with organisations to get them to understand the benefits of using its support to work towards acceptable solutions to disputes. The general view is that public sector industrial relations is likely to deteriorate in the coming months due to the lasting effects of the late-2000s global financial crisis, the UK recession and subsequent public sector cuts. Pay, job security and pensions in particular are issues that will increase the likelihood of employment disputes. Given this scenario, it may be that organisations may benefit from considering working with organisations such as Acas in order to limit future conflict.

For more information on this work, please contact Andrea Broughton at IES.