For a social worker with a heavy caseload, feeling pressurised by the needs and demands of service users, managers and trying to maintain life outside of work, the thought of how much money their director of social services or council chief executive gets paid can seem quite galling. When said director is regarded as a remote figure – unconnected to, and unconcerned about, the reality of the pressures at the frontline – the difference in the figure on their payslip can be especially morale-sapping.
On the other hand, for a director of social services, the constant knowledge that – with little warning – their career could be over and they will never work again because of a mistake or tragedy at the frontline that they could neither predict nor prevent is a pretty heavy pressure to work under. With budgets reducing and workloads increasing exponentially, the risk of such mistakes goes up dramatically and job insecurity becomes especially worrying.
The current high turnover of directors of children’s services (DCSs) would seem to confirm such anxieties and it is perhaps unsurprising that many would seek an impressive pay packet, given that it may well have to cover enforced early retirement.
However, taxpayers might feel equally tetchy when they see media reports of people in these roles receiving huge salaries, and yet their children’s services is still rated poorly.
Emotive issues in the background, then, to the parliamentary communities and local government select committee’s investigation into council chief officer pay.
The investigation has highlighted some interesting facts. For example, a report commissioned by the select committee found the difference in pay between the lowest paid workers and chief executives across the public sector is significantly lower than in private companies. County council chiefs on average receive nine times as much as the median salary in their organisations; in district councils the ratio is just over 6:1. In the private sector, the average differential is 228:1.
Unison gave evidence that at least 75% of council executive salaries had been frozen since 2009 and said wages should reflect the “complex and onerous” nature of these roles.
“The debate should not centre on those at the top being paid too much,” said Maris Stratulis, England manager for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW). Rather, “we should ask if those in less senior roles are being paid enough.”
Chief officer pay “isn’t at poverty levels,” said Unison senior national officer Mike Short, “But the salaries of most chief officers are far below the high figures talked about it in the media.”
The final report of the select committee in fact praised councils for reigning in chief officer pay over the past four years of austerity, in contrast with huge rises at the beginning of the decade.
The question in some authorities could now be whether salaries are big enough to attract high-calibre job applicants.
A spokesperson for Solace, the chief executive representative body, points out there is a shortage of social workers and a shortage of DCSs.
“We need to think about the impact of government and media bashing [around highly paid directors]. The image it creates may well discourage people from choosing and continuing to build a career in social services. This leads to a shortage of junior staff and senior staff. The key issue is how local government and local government staff are valued and this applies at all levels.”
The final select committee report was relatively restrained in its conclusions. It recommended there be greater transparency in how pay levels are set, over officers’ responsibilities and how poor performance is tackled in these roles. There was a call for councils to conduct careful research into market rates to set pay appropriately and use more robust appraisal processes to ensure they get value for money from senior staff.
It pointed out that when big pay-offs are seen as the method of dealing with poor performance, the tax-paying public will be rightly outraged.
The select committee’s evidence was gathered before the latest media frenzy over chief executive pay which focused on the £318,500 payment to Peter Lewis, the interim DCS at Somerset County Council.
A spokesperson for BASW said: “What is unacceptable is public sector money being used to pay excessive salaries to often ‘self-employed’ or agency interim directors or to those who are in a private business partnership, when basic services are being cut.”
The furore has focused attention on the current system of appointing interim directors and managers in failing councils to turn them around quickly. Lewis, for example, was previously sent into Haringey after the Baby P crisis.
Interim managers are seen as specialist posts with specialist skills and so most are self-employed and recruited through agencies. In Lewis’s role this is Penna and payments are made to his company, meaning he can save on the tax and national insurance he pays on them.
Short says that Unison “strongly opposes any attempts by senior employees to avoid tax”.
Graeme McDonald, a director with Solace, says it is occasionally unavoidable and necessary for councils to use agencies’ expertise to appoint a director quickly.
However, even Solace has come out against this model. McDonald continued: “ I don’t think it’s sustainable to have a merry-go-round of a small group of people being sent in to rescue struggling services. Where we have seen departments really recover and improve, it is when they have taken control of it themselves and created that stability themselves.”
BASW believes that, at all levels, authorities should focus on recruiting and retaining permanent staff. When loyal staff leave, “a wealth of knowledge and experience goes with them” Stratulis points out.
“Teams are destabilised leading to increased stress and more absences. This then fuels the need for agency staff and the situation perpetuates itself, costing even more public money,” she continues.
Could it be that the era of interim directors as the solution to troubled services is on its way out?