Why is the Government scared of Lib Dem South Cambridgeshire’s trial of four-day working?

The Government has called on Local Authorities to innovate and that is exactly what we’re doing in South Cambridgeshire, but it appears to be the wrong sort of innovation if you are a Tory. They have gone so far as issuing a Best Value Notice when our corporate peer review has just reported that we have really sound finances and an enviable record of delivering on the Government’s priorities.

In more ‘advanced’ parts of the world such as Scandinavia and Australia the four-day working week is becoming the norm and in the UK over 90% of those private sector businesses in a recent large scale study found it hugely beneficial and have chosen to stick with it. The five-day week is over 100 years old and was undoubtedly fit for purpose in a world without internet, AI and remote working. The pandemic accelerated the move into this new world of work and most organisations have retained those practices because they worked for people and for business.

Despite Jacob Rees Mogg wanting all civil servants tied to their desks five days a week, eight hours a day that is certainly not what is actually happening in government and it is not happening elsewhere. So why did we put ourselves in the firing line in South Cambridgeshire and why have we chosen, thus far, to stay there?

There is a national crisis in recruitment and retention which is most acute in the public sector and especially acute in places like ours where it is extremely expensive to live and there is a very competitive market for the sort of talented people we need. Greater Cambridge (Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire) is the hottest growth area in the UK and it is nigh on impossible to compete on salaries and perks with the wealthy private sector for planners, IT experts and others.

We had tried everything we could for years to become an employer of choice but we had to look at something else, not only to attract people but to hold onto them. We routinely failed to fill 80% of vacancies and early last year only filled 50%; some very attractive jobs received no applications and we were spending more than £2m a year on agency staff.

We began by running an initial three-months’ trail just to test if performance held up. We had previously spent three months preparing for the trial because evidence from the private sector study indicated the strong link between good preparation and eventual success. We extended the trial to a year when the result were encouraging and have subsequently seen an escalation of benefits as we move towards the end of this longer trail early next spring.

Despite this still being a trial we have recruited into 13 notoriously hard to fill roles and expect to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds less this year on agency staff than predicted. Our performance has held up across the board and has improved in places. We are getting significantly more and higher calibre applicants for every job than in the past. Staff sickness is down, people are returning to work earlier when they are sick and turnover is much reduced. The number of staff considering moving on is down too. The transformation work we had been struggling to implement with a tired and stressed workforce has been turbo-charged.

What is really important to me as a Liberal is how do the staff feel – what are the benefits to health and well-being, because it is not rocket science to assume that happy, unstressed, well rested people are more productive? Because we know that this is far from the top of the Tory list of priorities we do not make a song and dance about it, but our health and well-being data has shown improvements way above what we even hoped for. The culture in our organisation is great, our colleagues know now how much we care about them and appreciate the position we have taken.

And what about the government’s sorry role? Why are they choosing to interfere in an operational matter in a little local authority rather than trusting the electorate to decide at the ballot box if we are doing a good job or not? Why are they wasting time and resource attacking us and risking a massive backlash from the sector as a whole? Why, when they have their eyes on turning our area into the UK’s Silicon Valley would they halt progress and reduce our capacity to deliver on their visions for the Cambridge economy?

I have no doubt that they are cross that we have not immediately done as we were told but we believe we are on the side of right. We can clearly show that we have been doing is exactly what Michael Gove called on us to do, we are innovating to deliver better services whilst improving the value for our residents’ money.

* Cllr Bridget Smith is the Liberal Democrat Council leader of South Cambridgeshire Council and an LGA Board Member

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27 Comments

  • So basically what you’ve done is give everyone who works for the council a 20% salary boost (because they’re now getting 100% of the salary but for only 80% of the work)?

    I guess it’s not surprising that that will have made it easier to recruit!

    Have you checked whether your electorate are happy with this strategy though?

  • @Martin – no, it’s not as simple as a 20% pay rise. It’s also about his productive people are in the hours that they do work. I’m sure we all recognise that we’re not all 100% productive in every hour that we’re at work. It’s certainly worth experimenting to see whether productivity improves.

    I work in the private sector and only have a small sample (c80 people in my team) but my limited experience suggests the people working a 4 day week in my team produce just as much good work as those working 5 days.

  • *how not his

  • David sheppard 2nd Dec '23 - 8:21am

    Bridget and her team have done a tremendously good and difficult job in trying to find a different way. She deserves the highest praise for doing this. Basically looking after her employees and looking after ratepayers money it’s a no brainier!

  • Nonconformistradical 2nd Dec '23 - 8:48am

    I agree with Dominic

    I’m all in favour of people having to spend less time commuting to/from work. It’s a long time since I’ve travelled around East of England by car but I recall that towards the end of the afternoon the main roads in Cambridgshire were one horrendous traffic jam. (I’ve never been there during the morning commute but assume it’s just as bad). And the OP gives plenty of reasons why people might be commuting long distances – they can’t find anywhere affordable to live near work!

    @Martin – if the overall effect is that more (and maybe better quality?) work is getting done than previously when paying agency staff to fill the gaps what is your problem??

  • It is the future. As we become more productive we will trade some of the time currently spent at work for more leisure. The only question is does South Cambridgeshire have the competence to make it the reality now? I would like to see a whole range of performance indicators eg recycling rates, time to determine planning applications, proportion of housing stock which is vacant etc to see if the effectiveness of the council was better [or at least as good] as under a five day week to reach a definite conclusion. In the meantime Mr Gove would be well advised to pay more attention to what his own staff are doing. [Busy fighting a planning application where his team couldn’t even be bothered to read the relevant local plan before making the application.]

  • Martin Gray 2nd Dec '23 - 11:23am

    Would this be available to all at the council – the refuse operators , gardeners , labourers , porters , care home workers etc …Or is it another example of office workers finding it tough going in a heated & air conditioned office environment…

  • if the overall effect is that more (and maybe better quality?) work is getting done than previously when paying agency staff to fill the gaps what is your problem??

    Well indeed. As a council tax payer I don’t care about the mental health of people working for the council or any of that stuff. All I care about is that my council tax money is being used most efficiently — that I am getting maximum bang for each buck.

    So as far as I can see it should be easy to tell, if my local council introduced such a scheme, whether it was working. That is, the claim is that by introducing this scheme the total wage bill should drop, due to less ned to pay expensive temporary staff. And therefore the council should be able to reduce its council tax rates to reflect that it needs less money to do the same amount of work.

    Presumably the results are now in for Cambridgeshire’s experiment, so can they tell us, what was the total wage bill before, what is it now, how much has it fallen, and how much will they be reducing councl tax for their electorate as a consequence?

  • Nonconformistradical 2nd Dec '23 - 1:30pm

    @Martin
    “As a council tax payer I don’t care about the mental health of people working for the council or any of that stuff. All I care about is that my council tax money is being used most efficiently — that I am getting maximum bang for each buck.”

    I have no idea whether or not you employ anyone but if the mentail health of your workforce wasn’t important to you I certainly wouldn’t want to work for you.

    “Presumably the results are now in for Cambridgeshire’s experiment”
    If you take the trouble to read all of the OP you’d see that the trial has been extended from 3 months to 1 year and that ends next spring. So why would you expect the results to be available now?

  • Unless South Cambridgeshire is different than other places we know that spending by local authorities is restricted – and we know that people are increasingly unhappy about the services being provided. We do indeed need to evaluate any scheme – but let’s also ensure that we look at all aspects of any scheme.

  • I have no idea whether or not you employ anyone but if the mentail health of your workforce wasn’t important to you I certainly wouldn’t want to work for you.

    Your employer is not your mother. And employment contract is a simple trade of money for time, nothing more, and your mental health — just like any other aspect of your life outside those hours for which your employer is paying you — is absolutely none of your employer’s business, and if they start inquiring about it you should tell them in no uncertain terms to mind their own business.

    If you take the trouble to read all of the OP you’d see that the trial has been extended from 3 months to 1 year and that ends next spring. So why would you expect the results to be available now?

    Ah, I was misled by the fact that most of the article seems to be taken up with claiming that the benefits of the experiment were evident already — but without any actual facts to back that up, just irrelevant stuff about ‘how the staff feel’. People don’t pay tax to make civil servants feel good.

    I look forward to seeing the actual results, and how much the taxpayers of Cambridgeshire have their council tax bills reduced as a result of this policy (and that if it doesn’t result in such a reduction, it is stopped as a failure).

  • James Fowler 2nd Dec '23 - 3:40pm

    The problem with the 4 day week policy for public servants is not such what it may or may not achieve as how it looks. People on very low incomes in quite demanding jobs with long hours pay tax for public services which are not percieved to be at a very high standard. The detail of this may differ in South Cambridgeshire, but the general point stands.

  • <iPeople on very low incomes in quite demanding jobs with long hours pay tax for public services which are not percieved to be at a very high standard.

    That’s why if this really does allow those services to be delivered for less money, and therefore council tax to be reduced, it will be a good thing as it will mean those people will be able to keep more of their money.

    So we await the results of the experiment, and hopefully the reduction in council tax that will follow its successful completion, with great interest.

  • Nonconformistradical 2nd Dec '23 - 7:00pm

    “People on very low incomes in quite demanding jobs with long hours pay tax for public services….”
    If their jobs are demanding perhaps they deserve to be paid more in the first place? And isn’t this an argument for a local income tax?

    Given the OP this thread has focussed on financing of local services and on council tax. Would that as much heat went into considering the extent to which central government services are good value for the taxes we pay – or not….?

  • Martin: “and your mental health — just like any other aspect of your life outside those hours for which your employer is paying you — is absolutely none of your employer’s business”

    Extremely solid long-running precedent in health and safety law makes very clear that your employer has just as much responsibility not to worsen your mental health as it does not to worsen your physical health, and must set up the workplace accordingly, including appropriate risk assessments, training, procedures, working environment, etc. etc. Employers can and have been fined by the HSE for failure to comply in this area.

    Speaking as both a taxpayer and as a person, I’d far rather my local Council was spending my money on improving working conditions for its employees than it was wasting my money on paying avoidable HSE fines.

  • Speaking as both a taxpayer and as a person, I’d far rather my local Council was spending my money on improving working conditions for its employees than it was wasting my money on paying avoidable HSE fines.

    Have you never heard of the concept of over-engineering? Speaking as a taxpayer, I don’t want my local council spending a penny over the bare minimum of their legal obligations. If they were to never ever get fired that suggests they are spending more, possibly far more, than they absolutely have to.

  • Peter Watson 2nd Dec '23 - 11:21pm

    @Martin Gray “Would this be available to all at the council – the refuse operators , gardeners , labourers , porters , care home workers etc …Or is it another example of office workers finding it tough going in a heated & air conditioned office environment…”

    I think this is an important point, and I would like to see more information about it.

    I think we could hazard a guess about which of those two groups is most likely to be or vote for Lib Dems, so it would be reassuring to know that the 4 day week trial is more extensive than one might fear.

  • So why have local government at all?

    So that those who are responsible for spending local taxpayers’ money on local services are democratically accountable to those who pay the taxes, obviously.

    There has to be some way for those of us to pay to get rid of the council if they are wasting our money, and elections have historically proven to be the least worst way to accomplish that.

  • Martin Gray 3rd Dec '23 - 12:03am

    @Martin….”So we await the results of the experiment, and hopefully the reduction in council tax that will follow its successful completion, with great interest”…
    In my experience of paying any local government tax – I’ve never seen it reduced ….& no doubt this pen pushers 4 day week won’t make one iota of a difference

  • In my experience of paying any local government tax – I’ve never seen it reduced ….& no doubt this pen pushers 4 day week won’t make one iota of a difference

    Such cynicism! They say they are sure this new system will lead to saving money, so I say we give them a chance. Maybe they’ll be right and we can all look forward to reduced council tax bills as it is rolled out across the country.

    This is how innovation works in the private sector: someone has to be the first to try something, and if it works they make money and if it doesn’t they go bust. Why not in local government too?

    And of course if they’re wrong and council tax doesn’t reduce they will be going back to the way things were before.

    Right?

    Right?

  • Robert SAYER 3rd Dec '23 - 10:28am

    If money is saved then those services which are currently underfunded will be priority.
    Reducing Council Tax cannot be contemplated whilst this current government reduces the allocation of monies to Local Authorities.
    For those who dont like this I can only say that Liberal Democrats are a caring bunch

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Dec '23 - 11:11am

    I agree with Robert Sayer

  • The council’s claim appears to be that the 4 day week is saving money partly because staff are more productive when working 4 days, and partly because it is easier to recruit high quality staff. I foresee one potential problem ahead though: Obviously it’s easier to recruit staff if you are almost the only local employer offering people the benefit of a 4-day week. But if other local organisations see what the local authority has done, and follow suit in order to compete to attract their own staff/avoid losing staff, then the council will quickly lose that competitive advantage. Without that advantage in the jobs market, will the 4-day week still work out to be a net financial saving for South Cambridgeshire?

  • Michael Kilpatrick Michael Kilpatrick 11th Dec '23 - 11:20am

    I’m a bit late to this conversation but as a South Cambs resident, Bridget knows I support the 4-day week wholeheartedly. Such changes are the way of the future.

    The point I would like to add isn’t that the government aren’t necessarily /scared/ of something. They are just control freaks. This is very much a facet of UK politics: one of the most centralised western democracies in which the dinosaurs just don’t like the idea of letting go of power. Their first reaction to something that happens at a subnational level which is different from what they would like to do is to try to clamp down on it. It seems an unthinking, automatic reaction to anything that demonstrates that things can actually done differently within England, not just between England and Scotland, etc.

    When our MP Anthony Browne in one of his regular circulars commented on the 4-day week and this was forwarded to us Parish Councillors in Whittlesford by the Parish Clerk, I replied-all to say that the Parish Clerk should not be forwarding missives from our MP when he is sticking his nose into business that shouldn’t be his. This should NOT be within his remit.

    It isn’t and shouldn’t be Parliament’s business to tell local councils how to run their affairs and so they, and individual MPs, should jolly well get their grubby nose out of it. It’s for us, as South Cambs voters, to decide that, full stop.

  • Peter Chambers 19th Dec '23 - 12:35pm

    There are a few aspects of 4-day working that would worry the current lot.
    Firstly the principle that “the working classes should be there when they are needed”.
    This was a worry when railways were invented. The reserve army of under-employed should be on stand-by until an Overseer or Master gives an instruction.
    Then there are the revenues generated by agency work. South Cambs seems to spend £2m, yet not all of that will go to the staff. Some of it will go on advertising. Some of that will go to newspapers.
    Finally using in-house rather than agency staff will build up competence and capacity in local centres, as potential counterweights to central power. Mrs Thatcher understood this and sought to destroy such counterweights.

  • David Evans 19th Dec '23 - 4:44pm

    Speaking as an auditor who has experience of reviewing the “results” of exercises such as these in the past, I would just point out one universal truth that is fundamental in these matters.

    What is easy to measure is often not really important, and what is really important is often very, very difficult to measure.

    To just look at two sides of just one issue raised here as might impact one aspect of South Cambridgeshire’s work – Planning.

    “they’re now getting 100% of the salary but for only 80% of the work” – well maybe, but consider:
    1) Money is often thought to be be easy to measure (but often isn’t), but even worse
    2) In measuring Work done you have to evaluate quantity, quality, timeliness, accuracy, changes in specification (both official and unofficial) and sometimes most importantly, the effect of measurement itself on staff performance (e.g. the cost of decisions being challenged externally, having to be defended, perhaps being found to be incorrect, invalid or illegal, and finally compensation paid – sometimes years later).

    Or

    “we have recruited into 13 notoriously hard to fill roles and expect to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds less this year on agency staff than predicted.

    Simply consider the potential opportunities for flexibility in the terms
    1) notoriously hard to fill,
    2) expect to spend,
    3) than predicted.
    and of course what about total spending as a whole as opposed to just on agency staff.

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