Suffolk County Council's approach to Telework
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Flexible Working, 1999
These are times of major change in local government. The White Paper 'Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People', published a year ago, made it clear that the government expected to see major reforms in the way in which local authorities went about their work:
'Only some of local government in England today matches up to the picture of the modern council... Councils' political structures - centred on the committee system - are fundamentally the same as they were before women had the vote.. Change is needed to drive up standards overall, make best practice more widespread and address those occasional failures'
Suffolk County Council is one of the councils which is exploring the government's agenda for change through restructuring the way elected councillors undertake their work. The traditional committee structure (which, critics argue, tends to encourage a departmental rather than corporate approach to local government work) has been abolished, and instead Suffolk is trying out the 'cabinet' model of local government. An executive, made up of thirteen councillors from the three main parties, meets fortnightly. There is an independent Scrutiny Committee, charged with a monitoring the Executive's work. In addition, the old departmental committees have been replaced by four theme panels, picking up issues which cross department boundaries.
For example, one of the theme panels is called 'Sustainable Suffolk'. Among other things, this is currently considering the embryonic plans for a Green Transport Plan for the council (approved by the Executive Committee in June this year). The plan draws attention to the council's contribution to current transport problems:
'The Council at its two main sites in Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds contributes to traffic congestion and pollution at the peak hours in both towns... A Suffolk County Council Travel Plan should be an ambitious and radical initiative that aims to change how people travel to work, how they travel while at work, and from where and when they work...'
In relation to this last point - work location and hours of work - the authority is not completely beginning from scratch. As we shall see, there has been a home-based telework programme in place for members of staff of the Trading Standards service since April 1996. There has also been a small telework pilot for the eight members of the Standards Unit of the Social Services departments who are responsible for the inspection of residential and nursing homes. The council has a formal tele/home working policy framework document in place, approved in 1996, which has been drawn up to encourage consistency between different parts of the authority when introducing telework.
More generally, there have been some discussions in the authority about more radical forms of work restructuring. The current chief executive Lin Homer, in post since 1997, encouraged the creation of a Corporate Efficiency Group shortly after her appointment. This working group, as Robin Beard, Organisational Review Manager in the authority's personnel department, explains, debated issues such as teleworking and hotdesking. Another idea discussed was that of 'oasis points' around the county, touchdown bases for mobile and peripatetic staff using existing council buildings. (The Oasis idea is one which has been developed in Hertfordshire.) "There was also a lot of debate about the nine-day fortnight: undertaking our contractual 74 hours work over nine days, rather ten," Robin Beard says.
Also on the agenda were possible uses of call centres, and indeed the council is just about to take a first tentative step in this direction, with the launch of a Social Services call centre covering part of the county.
With senior management attention focused more recently on the move to cabinet-style government, it is probably fair to say that the ideas thrown up by the Corporate Efficiency Group are not at present top of the agenda. However, a major restructure of the social services department is currently progressing. Robin Beard says that he is also finding that the number of requests from within the authority for copies of the tele/home working policy has recently increased markedly. Arguably, the current reforms in the authority could act as a spur for management changes in working practices lower down the structure.
For Trading Standards at least, the adoption of home-based working seems to have been successful. The move was partly driven by budget considerations: as Steve Greenfield, senior assistant director in the department, explains, the move was seen as a positive way of maximising Trading Standards' resources at a time when budget cuts were being faced.
"It made an awful lot of sense to make Trading Standards staff more mobile. At that point, we had offices in Lowestoft and Bury as well as here. So we had three lots of clerical staff, three sets of information - it felt wasteful," he says.
The Lowestoft and Bury offices have now been shrunk down to one room, equipped with a PC, fax/scanner and three phone lines. (The rooms also act as the store for all the equipment and boxes of weights which sometimes need to accompany staff on their inspection visits).
The field staff (there are about 35 field staff out of a total staff complement of 46) have been equipped with Toshiba laptops and printers, mobile phones and BT chargecards. The PC and printers are carried in a robust carrying case about the size of a large briefcase. Business telephone lines have also been put into each of their homes.
Armed with this kit, staff are able to access the trading standards main database, which contains records of all the 22,000 trading premises in the county. Also available is the county council's Intranet COLIN (County On- Line Information Network), the Internet itself, e-mail facilities, the department's quality management system and also certain specialist reference resources on legal and technical issues. The department is developing a document imaging system, which will eventually mean that all correspondence and other written material can also be accessed electronically.
Six sets of the kit issued to teleworkers has been adapted for cellular access to data. As Steve Greenfield says, this means that Trading Standards staff can now access the information they need wherever they are in the county - always provided that they can pick up a cellular signal.
As well as the move to home teleworking, Suffolk's Trading Standards department has also in the past five years dramatically changed its way of working. Most of the traditional round of routine site visits and inspections have been replaced with an emphasis on project working. The best example of this is the department's recent probe into mortgage mis-selling by companies and advisers in the county, which received very high profile exposure in the national press.
Each project has a project leader, working to an overall brief given by a senior manager in the department. Projects themselves may have as many as six staff involved, or the 'team' can be effectively just one person Project teams meet with their senior manager once a month. As Steve Greenfield says, project working has led to a shift from the monitoring of work outputs to work outcomes.
Steve Greenfield and Robin Beard were members of the team which produced the tele/homeworking policy framework, together with representatives from (among others) Social Services, the Education department, the County Treasurers and from the trade union Unison. Unison's Netta McMinn says that at the time the group had few other telework examples from local authorities and approached the issue "from a common sense point of view".
The tele/homeworking policy framework document has fourteen sections. In outline, it sets out the following:
- the requirement of the service is the important factor in determining whether tele/homeworking can take place
2. Contracts of Employment - selection arrangements for employee's administrative centre and habitual place of work
12. Contact points
Steve Greenfield accepts that there were teething problems at the start of Trading Standards' move into teleworking, and he says that a handful of staff subsequently chose to leave. As he points out, it can take time to get used to not having an office infrastructure around you. However he says that one of the biggest challenges facing staff has been the need to plan their working time much more carefully. "If you went back five years, most people didn't plan more than two days ahead. We require people now to plan much more," he says.
Netta McMinn from Unison adds that the start of Trading Standards' telework programme suffered from technical problems. The corporate network which Trading Standards had initially expected to be in place ready for teleworking did not immediately materialise. Suffolk has now managed to address this issue: "Departments had separate networks and different protocols. Over an eighteen month period, everyone switched over to IP. We do now have a corporate network, though parts run somewhat independently," says Chris Rundell, corporate information strategy manager.
Suffolk's Intranet COLIN (County On-Line Information Network) has now been running for about two years. It is an impressive service, including the internal phone book, staff announcements, vacancies, the library catalogue, Suffolk press cuttings and press releases, an open learning centre, and selected feeds from relevant Internet discussion lists. Suffolk's external web site (www.suffolkcc.gov.uk) is also a good example of its class, including among other things all papers approved by committees.
The development of COLIN, the web site and the corporate network has encouraged Suffolk to consider ways to allow its councillors to work remotely. Thirty-two of the council's 80 councillors now have the facility to access the network from their homes, using a dedicated line. Whilst in the past this has been an ordinary phone line, the county is now also exploring the possibility of putting in ISDN or Business Highway lines.
Up to now, remote facilities for home use have been rationed to senior councillors who are chair or deputy chairs of committees (though this now sits uncomfortably with the new council structure). The ultimate aim would be to enable all councillors who wished to have facilities for remote electronic network access from home, though the cost involved makes this currently difficult to justify. There is also perhaps the reality that councillors can prefer the social intercourse that comes from meeting their colleagues in County Hall. For the foreseeable future, therefore, councillors continue to receive their council business through hefty envelopes in the letterbox.
Suffolk's agreement with the Inland Revenue.
Suffolk County Council does not compensate its workers for the expenses of using their own homes for work. The tele/homeworking policy justifies this by reference to the 'tough background of financial restrictions' facing the authority.
However, the council has negotiated a pioneering agreement with the Inland Revenue locally, to enable staff to get an element of tax relief on their work-incurred home expenses.
The Revenue agreement involves the use of a standard formula to calculate the size of this tax relief. It covers cases where employees are required to work at home, rather than working at home through choice. The allowance is intended to cover the costs of heating, lighting, cleaning and maintenance of the office area. Interestingly, a proportion of the council tax due on the property can also be set against tax.
The Revenue's approved formula involves calculating the number of rooms in the employee's house. Bathrooms, toilets and entrance halls are excluded. In the case of a house with six rooms, one of which is used as an office, a typical calculation would be:
Allowable against tax, 1/6th of £1800, or £300.
The Council's tele/homeworking policy also adds: "The issue of Capital Gains Tax should not arise provided that the home is not substantially altered to accommodate the home working situation".
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