In Praise of….Council staff


Last night for the eighth year in a row I had to take to the airwaves to defend council staff against the amateur and incompetent attacks of the Taxpayers Alliance.

Every year they do a survey about how many staff get paid at the higher salary levels. Their statistics are usually partial and incomplete but most importantly of all they sensationalise salary levels by not putting them in the context of the real world that councils have to live in.

They fail to look at – never mind answer – three key questions:

• What are the levels of responsibility of both finance and management problems that staff within the sector face compared to those within the private sector; and
• If we pay so well how is it that all local government has great difficulty in recruiting senior staff particularly for Adult and Children’s Service posts? and
• If our pay and conditions are so good why is it a rarity for people from the private sector to apply for public sector jobs?

Because are the questions that any councillor will have to decide when looking at how much we should pay.
Let’s look at our recruiting difficulties. In some areas such as IT, legal, marketing and HR we compete directly with the private sector. The private sector pays more than we do for those jobs. This is true not only at the top level but throughout those sectors within councils. This might be seen to imply that the best go for the money and councils are left with the dross. That would be an entirely untrue assumption. Many people stay and work within councils who could earn more money elsewhere because of their public sector ethos. They choose to stay because they want to serve the community. We should not however take undue advantage from such people. It is true that there is built in to many salary levels a reduction in salary that makes such an assumption but that probably is no more than 10-15% of salary levels. After that we would be exploiting the goodwill of our staff.

Let’s then look at the levels of responsibility required vis-a-vis the private sector. In crude terms Liverpool City Council has a gross budget of £1billion per year and assets of say 0.5 billion. It has 330,00 shareholders (or voters!) and provides services to 470,000 residents, 20,000 businesses and an average of more than 75,000 who work in the city but live outside and up to 200,000 visitors to the city on a day featuring the Giants or the International Festival of music.

If this was a private sector operation it would be in the FTSE 100 so just in scale it is a massive operation. But look at the complexity of what our staff have to do. In a private company the MD has to keep happy a Board of about a dozen Directors and a largely compliant set of shareholders. It simply has to make a profit by selling its good and services which translate to a bottom line of distributable earnings. MDs usually are unknown outside the company and public scrutiny is limited to profit updates and half year and full year reports.

Council staff report to a ‘Board of Directors’ of 90 councillors. The council’s shareholders (voters) get regular chances to affect that Board of Directors. Scrutiny takes place on almost a daily basis through the media and the bottom line of its delivery mechanisms often relate to things that it can only influence and not control. Yes of course councils must get the bins emptied on time and keep the streets clean and make sure the schools function. Yes they should be judged on the efficiency and competence of those delivery mechanisms BUT they do so much more than deliver their own services. They also:

Create opportunities for the private sector to make money by land assembly, city-wide promotion action (such as the Giants, the River Festival and the International Festival of Business). Week after week the council does things to ensure that our hotels, bars and shops are packed with none of that revenue appearing in our profit and loss accounts or bottom line.

Influence other organisation’s spending. We create the Strategic Needs Assessment for the Health Service and monitor the performance of a sector much bigger than our own. We own no council, houses but are still the strategic housing authority ensuring that the public and private sectors combine to deliver the homes that the city needs in the long-term.

Have responsibility for the long-term development of the area in which public and private sector can flourish. In some ways this is the most important job of all. To see the renaissance of Liverpool which has started in 2000 and continues to this day and compare that to the stagnation of much of the 80s and 90s leaves you in no doubt of the vital nature of this work.

And finally let’s look at the complexity of some of its services. Providing education in highly stressful communities; making life changing decisions with and for some of the most disadvantages members of our society; providing or nor providing services that can affect the long-term health of our population. See what happens in the cases like Baby Peter when the public sector (not just the council) gets it wrong and rejoice in the fact that in the vast majority of cases it does get it right.

The long-term denigration of public sector workers has a corrosive effect. That fact that they are encouraged by low-life politicians like the former comedy duo Pickles and Shapps (known popularly as Laurel and Hardy) are a disgrace. We see this every day. Not only is it difficult to recruit at our senior levels we have difficulty in recruiting Head teachers and staff in our most difficult areas and our social services departments have great difficulty in recruiting at any level leaving us in the hands of more expensive short-term agency staff.

I have no problem with a debate about maximum pay levels. I don’t believe anyone needs a massive package of pay. I struggle to see why anyone needs salaries of £150k and above. But until we start to apply similar rules in the private sector then why should we not over discriminate against public sector staff. Of course it is true that if senior and other staff got paid less in the public sector we could distribute that money or saving to other things. But that is equally true of other services and goods that we buy in the private sector.

The fact is simple that if we don’t succeed in making our services more efficient than we will waste more money and have worse outputs and outcomes. If we don’t recruit the right people we will not manage our services efficiently. If we don’t have a package which pays well enough but not overpays then we will not recruit the right people. QED.

Throughout this blog I have referred to the local government sector but I have no doubt that much of what I have said would apply equally to other parts of the public sector. I have no doubt that within the public sector there are people employed who are idle, venal or incompetent. They should be got rid of as soon as possible and indeed they are got rid of. But the vast majority of public sector workers I know are committed, competent and compassionate. They deserve our support not our derision.

I suspect that the shadowy TPA will come up with the same half-witted dross next year. Perhaps one day they will reveal their sources of income, perhaps they will say who their members are and whether they are different from the supporters that they claim but do not name.

But I won’t hold my breath until they produce a factual, balanced report that will help those who have to make difficult decisions in difficult times.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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1 Response to In Praise of….Council staff

  1. Pingback: Top of the Blogs: The Lib Dem Golden Dozen #385

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