They Also Serve

Unless there’s a scandal involved, like yesterday’s Hootsmon front page story of Edinburgh officials on the take, you don’t hear much about councils. There were council elections all over England on the same Thursday as the General Election  but they might have been in Patagonia for all the coverage in the media. As provider of most local services and the closest democracy gets to Mr & Mrs Punter, you’d think they deserved better.

But do they?

From once being mostly low-paid administrators and manual workers, council employees have come up in the world. Public service unions made sure their members didn’t lose out in rampant wage inflation that once characterised the 1970’s. But, after the handbagging of private sector unions that subsequently took place, those same unions survived to transform their members’ jobs from being low on wage to compensate for being high in job security into ones that were both.

Council chief executives now earn over half what the Prime Minister does; South Lanarkshire Council executive director Linda Hardie  came second on a UK-wide rich list. being paid £543,538. In adjacent N. Lanarkshire Council, 29 senior staff scooped approximately £184,000 in extra payments – chief executive Gavin Whitefield being the biggest winner with an extra £12,050 on top of his £136,848 salary. All of this has the approval of the local Labour administrations.

Meantime, council meetings echo to the management-school-speak of team building and mission statement and key performance indicators; council papers are now peppered with financial impact and code of conduct and equalities impact and human resources policies.

As they say in the States: “They can talk the talk—but can they walk the walk?”

After sixteen years as a councillor, I have developed a high regard for the professionalism, dedication and general hard work of most of the officials with whom I have come in contact. There are those who have had some acknowledgement for this but it is generally internal, such as ELC’s Star Awards which are presented at a gathering of employees. Generally, the public they serve are unaware.

This is all the more unjust because those who do go the extra mile stand out from the facelessness that is how most public view their council because almost none of them work local so you can chat in the post office queue. That means their phone number/e-mail gets passed about as ‘someone who gets things done’ and their work load is ever-increasing while their pay stays the same as their colleague whose phone never gets answered.

When dealing with this latter type, my advice to customers frustrated by their passivity has always been: “Never ascribe to malice what you can explain by incompetence“.

Poor service isn’t always a function of poor pay but it is a reasonable explanation why—30 years ago when their pay was poor—council employee dealings with the public were poor, if only in the familiar bureaucratic “but you should have filled out the seven-page Form 79B, not 79A” way.

They delighted in setting rules; their own perceived lowly status was compensated by being able to order others about; all seemed paid-up members of the Amalgamated Union of Pencil-necks. Fast-forward thirty years and the only thing to have changed significantly are pay grades and their compensation. Teachers—rightly outraged at having been left behind in professional salary—received the generous McCrone settlement in 2001. Since when they have worked to rule as if they hadn’t been professionals in the first place.

It’s unfair to pick on teachers. Pretty much across the spectrum, any increased rewards are linked to service not to quality and the original mind-set of keeping the public in check and at arm’s length has not been leached out of the system. Examples:

  • A new call centre is installed—but taking half a minute to answer an incoming call is regarded as acceptable; private companies want phones answered by the third ring.
  • Planning officials make definitive decisions following the letter of the law, ignoring aesthetics, context, architecture or community needs—but thereby avoid making any waves in the shape of appeals or even litigation by rich developers.
  • Supported bus services are dictated by what the council is required to do (e.g. school transport) with no initiative to research new travel patterns or develop integration
  • Major local events like the Open are planned behind closed doors with the police and then ‘consultation’ involves telling communities affected how things will be run
  • Licensing consists of ensuring fees are paid for everything under the sun allowed by law but no effort is put into promoting the businesses being licensed
  • Formal correspondence, be it Council Tax demands, Road Traffic Notices or Planning Notifications consist of minimal blocks of legalese and so wind up largely incomprehensible gibberish, with no effort explain or expand
  • A drive for community involvement became ‘Area Partnerships’ with a cast of thousands and little responsibility or budget beyond duplicating community councils

Some attempts at genuinely tying council services into local initiatives (like Landscape does so well with In Bloom or Culture does with Community Museums) or putting them on a professional customer-oriented setting (like Enjoy) have not broached the silos in which most council departments continue to operate.

While not as keen on empire building as brash new private companies, most directors are shrewd at empire-defending: each fiefdom is jealous of both its budget and its size of staff. And, while many are adept at ‘downsizing’ and using special funds for early retirements and the like, strange things happen. For example, the car park at ELC’s John Muir House HQ is now harder to get into at 8:30am that it used to be at 9am—and this after ‘loss’ of 400 posts and the closure of Haddington Sheriff Court. Strange.

The explanation is mostly to be found in agency staff—and in early retirees who are suddenly back at their desks as ‘consultants’ They earn more money And they collect pension. Sweet. The richest scam of all was when an ELC Chief Executive tried to have his post declared redundant (actually against the law) and collect a £149,000 extra pot on top of his normal retirement package.

But the greatest fallacy going the rounds is that of interchangeable management. Managers and directors usually start off as junior officers and work their way up. Until recently, that invariably meant within their own discipline. The latest fad is to define directors or heads of service as ‘generic’ managers, able to bring widely applicable skills to different disciplines.

In theory great, in practice it means directors with scant understanding of the intricacies of a broad range of services under their control. In private business that would be handled by a management team, many of whom had MBAs or at least experience with management consultants—which meant they were trained to be generalists. Such people are rare in public service and those who join seldom stay because the culture is so passive and therefore incompatible to what they were trained for.

Despite all the moaning from various council leaders about belts being tightened, that has only been true of lower level management and those that left were often the experienced ones who seized a chance at early retirement or a move to the private sector. What is left in Scotland is a hollowed-out set of 32 councils not fit for purpose. They small ones are too small to be efficient; the large ones too bureaucratic to be efficient. All are to large to enjoy much local connection and are not at the heart of most communities.

Continued austerity will bring them to the brink. That will mean serious amounts of shared services that all have body-swerved to date. And if the Scottish Government is worth its salt, it will replace the hale clamjamfrey with a half-dozen regional authorities based on cities (with all strategic and most operational responsibility) and revive the old burgh councils (or equivalent) at community level with small budgets, tiny staff and the clout to shape the communities they serve.

This is not new: see earlier blogs on the Christie Commission, overpaying council management, and possible council structures for the future.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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