Talking about money is the last British taboo. In a survey conducted by the University College London, respondents were seven times more likely to discuss things like how many sexual partners they had or whether they have had an affair than their annual income. Broaching the subject of is seen as at best impolite. Straightforwardly asking about income – unthinkable.
This is perhaps one of the reasons why our annual ‘Town Hall Rich List’ – a comprehensive review of the number of non-teaching council staff receiving over £100,000 – elicits such a strong response. ‘539 town hall fat cats rake in more than the PM’, thundered the Daily Mail front page last year. ‘Our social care system is about to collapse, so a right-wing group has decided to ritually humiliate the people who run it’, fumed a comment piece in the Independent. On the one hand it seems like a tasteless breach of people’s privacy, yet a look behind the veil reveals something which feels wrong to people who could never imagine having earnings approaching those figures.
You may ask – what is the point? What will be achieved by “revealing” (those figures are in the councils’ annual accounts, publically available on their websites) how much someone earns? The answer is surprisingly subtle, and closely relates to a wider question of the role that think-tanks, pressure groups and civil society have to play.
A local authority is not a business. It does not compete for income, but has a guaranteed stream of council tax receipts, business rates as well as direct grants from the central government. It does not compete for ‘customers’, but has a monopoly on running schools, building roads, collecting bins and providing social care.
Most importantly, it lacks a clear and easily identifiable performance indicator – where in a business it is relatively easy to, for example, peg an annual bonus to the amount of profit generated in that year, no such possibility exists when it comes to provision of public services. Measuring their performance would be a subtle task, combining subjective parameters like levels of public satisfaction and objective parameters like the number of potholes into a single index weighted by the level of council tax and the size of the budget.
The absence of these things means that we need some other way of ensuring that public sector pay is not arbitrary and at least to some extent linked to performance. The reason why those figures are publically available in the first place is to replace economic pressure of the bottom line with political pressure of the public gaze. And just like the former, it is a two-way street. Good business performance eases the hold on wages by the virtue of creating more slack in the balance sheet. Likewise, good council performance eases the political pressure on wages by making higher council salaries politically acceptable. Except that very few people have the time and will to trawl through the accounts of their local authority to obtain it, which creates an accountability issue. The Town Hall Rich List is an attempt to fix that.
The best way to defend yourself from an accusation of being a fat cat is to show us and the people for whom you are responsible why you deserve this money – are your schools some of the best in the country? Is your council tax particularly low? Are people generally satisfied with your services? If so, shout about it from the rooftops.