Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Was council's workforce wisdom 'sold' for £12 million?


A dramatic decline of 35 per cent in the number of staff aged 40 or over at Scottish Borders Council has coincided with an aggressive campaign to encourage early retirement and to promote severance or exit packages within the authority over the last seven years.

The loss of more than 1,600 'older heads' has occurred between 2009 and 2016, at the same time heralding a rapid 33 per cent influx of under 40s, including almost three times as many employees who are under 30 (up from 121 to 344).

The latest headcount of 4,140 at SBC is made up of 3,078 over 40s (74.3%) along with 1,062 younger staff members (25.7%). Those statistics can be compared to the 2009 figures which showed 4,770 out of 5,566 staff (85.7%) had passed their fortieth birthday with just 796 (14.3%) under 40.

And back in 2009 there were even 603 over 65s on the payroll. Today that number is stated to be 69.

The marked shift of the age profile in a relatively short period of time was revealed in a response to a Freedom of Information request (FOI number 10,185) which was published on the council's website in May. It appears to have slipped past virtually unnoticed, yet the data should be of interest to employment demographers and population scientists.

The full lists of figures for 2009 and for 2016 in brackets by age group are as follows: under 20: 0 (16); 20-29: 121 (344); 30-39: 675 (702); 40-49 1,249 (1,170); 50-59: 1,887 (1,476); 60-65 1,031 (363); over 65: 603 (69).The end result is that the average age of council staff has dipped from 52 to 47 over the seven years covered by the statistics.

Whether this trend has affected standards of service to SBC's 'customers' or has impacted on the delivery of local government functions is a matter for those who come into contact with the range of departments which come under the control of the local authority.

Spending cuts and alterations to services have undoubtedly taken their toll with members of the Scottish public often expressing dissatisfaction with their local government service in general.

Self-assessment of performance by SBC and its fellow local authorities tends to be up-beat with an optimistically positive spin attached to the statistics. The fact remains that over 600 complaints a year are logged on the Borders council system even though a significant proportion are dismissed as unworthy of investigation at an early stage in the complaints process.

Meanwhile the shedding of more elderly - and presumably experienced - members of the workforce has been achieved at a considerable cost to the public purse.

Research by Not Just Sheep & Rugby shows SBC has spent some £12.177 million on 481 early retirement and redundancy packages since 2010. The average cost of these 'golden goodbyes' works out at £25,300 with a number of them well above £100,000.

After the cull of staff began in earnest around 2009 Audit Scotland had this to say in its audit report on the council's 2009/10 annual accounts:

"As part of the business transformation programme the council made a number of staff positions redundant during 2009/10. The council also offered some early retirement to staff both on an individual and group (Teachers) basis. The council has reviewed its policies pertaining to Early Retirement, Voluntary Severance and Compulsory Redundancy in the light of the emerging severe economic constraints the council must address in the immediate future. Furthermore recruitment, agency staff and overtime have all been identified as areas of reduced spend to meet cost saving plans.

 The report went on to warn: "A decrease in the workforce may result in service disruption and deterioration in quality of service. We will continue to monitor the workforce planning proposals and the consequent impact in 2010/11."

In a response outlining its planned management action, SBC claimed:"All retirements and redundancies are planned and managed to ensure knowledge transfer and to minimise potential disruption. Responsible officer:  T Logan, (director of resources)".

However, the use of exit packages accelerated during the next three financial years. In 2010/11 94 employees left with £2.358 million between them. The exodus became a veritable stampede in 2011/12 when 138 leavers picked up £3.579 million, and a further 75 posts were sacrificed on the alter of 'cost saving' in 2012/13 involving expenditure of £1.888 million of public money.

The 2011/12 books included details of the controversial total payment of more than £318,000 made to departing chief executive David Hume, including £103,000 as compensation for loss of employment.

Audit Scotland later observed: "The previous chief executive left the Council under the voluntary severance / early retirement scheme in place. As part of our audit, we considered the process for this and concluded that this was in line with the Council’s standing orders.

"We note that this was undertaken through the Council’s emergency powers but, while the previous chief executive’s departure was reported to a subsequent meeting of the full Council, no formal reference was made to the circumstances . In accordance with the terms agreed with the previous chief executive, his departure was initially referred to as “retirement”.

"This may have created a misleading impression and, with hindsight, it may have been preferable to have agreed to describe the departure as “early retirement under the voluntary severance scheme” as used in subsequent press releases."

A former council insider who looked at our findings remarked: "I find this interesting as some dead wood has been pruned. However I do feel some people who performed well and enjoyed the job have departed for the wrong reasons because job descriptions have been changed and other factors introduced to encourage their departure.

"For example this has involved qualified experienced people who were performing well in Planning, Economic Development and Technical Services but were probably too good at their job and stood up for what was right".

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