Council cuts: Just what is a 'non-job'?
- 23 February 2011
- From the section Magazine
Newspapers have savagely attacked the retention of council "non-jobs" while front line services are axed. But are there such things as "non-jobs" and what exactly is an essential job?
With cuts beginning to bite, attacks on alleged council waste are intensifying.
Newspapers and ministers - led by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles - have lambasted councils for protecting "non-jobs" while front line staff are being laid off.
There has been criticism about posts like "walking co-ordinator", "roller disco coach", "bouncy castle attendant", "cheerleading development officer", "future shape programme manager" and "Nuclear Free Local Authorities policy officer".
The coalition government has released figures suggesting that since 1997 councils have taken on an extra 180,000 workers. The critics claim that it brings the number of "non-jobs" - those not in traditional front-line roles such as education, refuse collection or social care - to almost 750,000.
"Crazy non-jobs like cheerleading development officers and press officers tasked with spinning propaganda on bin collections provide no value to the public," said Bob Neill, the local government minister.
So are these types of jobs being retained while front line services are cut?
Islington council leader Catherine West says her new administration axed the "walking co-ordinator" post after its election in May.
"Some lazy journalists and even a government minister keep repeating the myth that Islington 'has a walking co-ordinator' without even bothering to check. It is unbelievably cynical to criticise 'non-jobs' that don't even exist," she says.
Angus council says it pulled the plug on the bouncy castle attendant "some years" ago while Falkirk council says the cheerleading development officer hasn't existed for "several years".
But some of the criticised posts remain. North East Lincolnshire Council is recruiting for a "Future Shape programme manager", an appointment which Tony Hunter, the council's chief executive, says is about saving money.
"Future Shape involves reshaping what we do and how we do it, in line with the government's Big Society and broad localism principles," he states.
Manchester City Council still has a Nuclear Free Local Authority policy officer. A spokesman defends the job's existence by saying that they pay only 20% of the salary with the rest funded by the NFLA Secretariat, which the council hosts.
He argues that the job "involved links to other cities" around the UK which were beneficial to Manchester. But others disagree.
"Most people polled in Manchester would not want to pay for a nuclear free worker," says Neil O'Brien, director of the Policy Exchange think tank.
John O'Connell, research director at TaxPayers' Alliance, a group which lobbies for lower taxes and greater government efficiency, admits there is no precise definition for a "non-job".
One definition is a council employee who doesn't work in a front line role but there is uncertainty over what "front line" actually means, as can be seen from the debate over front line policing numbers.
One good example of an "expendable role" is the post of diversity officer, Mr O'Connell believes, citing figures showing that during 2009-2010 there were 543 diversity officers working at England's councils at a cost of almost £20m.
Birmingham City Council topped the list, spending £1.9 million on 28 diversity officers.
But a council spokeswoman said these staff played a valuable role and stressed the need to comply with government equality legislation.
"We do not have 'diversity officers'," says the spokeswoman. "We have officers working within the equality and diversity division who engage with other public agencies and community groups to ensure that everyone has the ability, knowledge and confidence to know how to access services, what help is available and what help they are entitled to."
Mr O'Connell acknowledges that councils have to comply with equality legislation but says some like Birmingham were being disproportionate.
It doesn't help that council jobs are often hard for the layman to decipher. Mr O'Connell points to the advertisement for the £70,000-a-year "Future Shape programme manager" at North East Lincolnshire Council.
"The duties are explained as 'setting out the council's vision to be a commissioning, enabling and facilitating organisation'. An ordinary council tax payer wouldn't have a clue what that means," Mr O'Connell argues.
But John Ransford, chief executive of the Local Government Association, says some of the designations of "non-job" are wholly wrong.
He defends Liverpool City Council, which has come under fire from ministers for advertising the job of "assistant director of adult services" on a salary of £90,000.
"Many of the posts being denigrated as 'non-jobs' reflect a lack of understanding about the complex nature of the work local authorities do. To suggest that an assistant director of adult services - responsible for overseeing the care of thousands of elderly and vulnerable people - is a 'non-job' absolutely beggars belief," Mr Ransford says.
The real issue is not exotic sounding jobs but the massive scaling up of pay and headcounts at local authorities, says Mr O'Brien. Between 2002 and 2009 spending on local authority payrolls increased by £67bn, he says.
About £4bn of that, according to the Policy Exchange, went on jobs like marketing and PR, but a much bigger increase - £14bn - has gone on paying for managers.
"There is a lot of waste," Mr O'Brien says. "But most of that is not in overtly weird jobs but massive increases in pay and staff numbers. The median hourly salary is now 30% higher in the public sector than the private sector."
But Stephen Overell, associate director of the Work Foundation urges caution when knocking councils.
"If the 'non-job' is about peculiar job titles then the public sector has no monopoly on that. We need to remember that in the private sector companies have departments of fun."
And the equality and diversity department is just as much a feature of corporations as councils.
The difference is that councils are democratically accountable and paid for by taxes, and therefore attract more criticism, he says. It can be argued that the whole world of work, whether private or public sector, has seen an explosion in managerialism in recent years.
And it's often very hard to describe what these jobs do, Mr Overell says.
Critics argue that local government is employing too many managers instead of protecting front line staff from cuts. But Mr Overell doubts this is the case.
"It's very difficult to say what is an essential managerial post to support front line staff. If it comes to a toss up between paying teachers' salaries or trimming the diversity and equality function, I suspect it's the latter that will get cut."