The council where I work has just asked our residents what they think of our budgets, and the answers are fascinating – and not all negative. It was great that residents said they’d like to see more spending on frontline staff and would support higher council tax and business rates to preserve frontline services.
But it was also eye-opening to see the number of comments about things that are beyond our control, or delivered by other organisations. There’s not much we can do if people are dissatisfied with emergency services, welfare benefits or care providers, so perhaps we need to let people know that.
There were also a significant number of council-bashing comments, often echoing statements from communities secretary Eric Pickles, or stories from tabloid or local papers. Everyone loves to have a pop at their local council and there may have been a time when a certain amount of criticism was justified. We are far from perfect, but as a sector we are very aware of what the difficulties are and what we still need to do to improve. Many people might be surprised if they realised just how modern, efficient and well-run their local council actually is. Here are some of the myths I’d like to bust:
1. Our pensions are gold-plated
Local government pensions have changed. They are no more protected now than any other type of pension and they are not substantially better value either. In 2013, the average pension for a member of the local government pension scheme was £4,882.
2. Our salaries are too high
It’s staggering that there are people who think social workers are overpaid. Perhaps they mean that more senior officers and those at the top are paid too much, but how much is too much?
In local government we have an extremely transparent pay structure, which anyone can lookup. Our salaries, after tax, are not huge, weighed against the level of responsibility and the workload. Managing a complex public service like housing, revenues and benefits or a customer service centre for about £40,000 a year does not look very generous in reality, especially when similar jobs in the private sector would pay around twice that amount. Yes, some chief executives are paid up to £200,000 a year, but again, if you compare that to the kind of top level pay in the private sector, it’s actually pretty modest – and we don’t get bonuses.
3. We waste money on non-jobs
I wish we could call the role of equality and diversity officer a non-job, in the sense that they didn’t have any work to do. It would be great if the role were an anachronism, or surplus to requirements. But it isn’t. Sadly, inequality still exists in our communities and workplaces.
Councils have a statutory duty to provide fair and equal services. The public sector equality duty requires public bodies to respect the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between different people when carrying out their activities. This is why we have equality officers, to ensure we are meeting these duties and that all our residents can access services in a fair and consistent way.
Other jobs, deemed unnecessary and thus abolished by Pickles, were those at the Audit Commission, our regulatory body. And now nobody knows how their local council services are performing and or how they compare to other parts of the country.
4. We are too bureaucratic and love red tape
I have never worked anywhere less process-driven than local government, although I admit I have usually worked at the corporate centre, not in a service. There is a lot of flexibility in the system and it has always been possible to identify and cut out waste, inefficiency or needless bureaucracy. Local government has been using streamlining methodologies such as lean systems thinking for more than 20 years, and we are always trying to simplify things for our residents. Some parts of our service delivery seem to involve complex and complicated processes. But we have been aware of this for a long time and we’re still working on it.
And much red tape exists because we are a public authority. We have codes of ethics and governance that protect the public purse from fraud and corruption. We can’t ignore these processes just because they make things feel a bit tiresome at times.
5. We waste money on support services
People often think that back office services are a waste of money and something on which we can easily reduce spending. That may have been true many years ago, when every manager or team had a secretary and there might have been 10 different payroll and IT services within a single county. But this has not been the case for a long time now. Shared services have become the norm, secretaries are more or less a thing of the past, and we have greatly reduced admin costs by automating many processes.
More and more councils are using managed services, reducing staff overheads and outsourcing support services to the most cost effective provider. Despite Pickles’s belief that further cuts can be made, reductions will not only bring diminishing returns but hamper the day-to-day running of the organisation.
6. We waste money outsourcing our support services
Even when we take action to reduce our staff costs, some people are unhappy because they imagine that managing a contract must be costing the taxpayer a fortune. But the key driver is, and always has been, cost. More than 20% of council’s financial, HR and payroll services are now outsourced and many authorities have reported millions in savings.
If we were concerned only with the quality of provision and staff satisfaction, we’d never use an outside provider. Whenever I’ve worked in an organisation that had its own in-house system, we had a far better service. So if any service cost more to outsource than doing it ourselves, we would do it ourselves.
And finally: we spend a lot of time in the canteen
Groups of officers do indeed often seem to pass their entire day in the canteen, mainly because there aren’t enough meeting rooms. But try as we might, we haven’t yet eliminated the need for face-to-face meetings. Selling off our assets is delivering returns in terms of capital receipts, but is not necessarily providing us with the best working environment.
Joanne Fry is a local government corporate policy officer. These are her personal views.