Local government HR chiefs justify their six-figure reward packages as delivering value for complex organisations.
The revelation that at least nine local council HR chiefs took home six-figure salaries last year would have raised a few eyebrows among colleagues in the profession.
Their wage packets featured in a so-called Town Hall Rich List compiled by pressure group the Taxpayers’ Alliance, using figures released under the Freedom of Information Act. The list revealed that 818 local authority managers earned more than £100,000 in 2006-07, up from 645 the previous year.
Topping the table of practitioners with HR as part of their remit was Alan Warner, corporate director at Hertfordshire County Council, who, according to the list, took home £146,338 in 2006-07. He was followed by Northamptonshire Council’s HR director, Hilary Jeanes, who boasted a £135,000 salary.
Those numbers far exceed the average wage of £73,264 taken home by HR directors in the private sector last year, according to a survey by recruitment firm Reed Human Resources.
The publication of public sector salary details is the equivalent of poking a stick at a bee-hive, particularly as councils and unions are currently engaged in sensitive pay talks. The findings also raise bigger questions about transparency and accountability in local government.
Gillian Hibberd, corporate director (people and policy) at Buckinghamshire County Council, featured in the list, and strongly defended her £101,568 wage. “My organisation has an annual turnover in excess of half a billion pounds and employs more than 14,000 people,” she said. “Comparable organisations in the private sector would undoubtedly attract similar or higher levels of salary for similar roles.”
Hibberd insisted her role was far broader than just HR. “I am a corporate director sitting on the corporate management board of the council with responsibility for managing performance across the whole authority and my salary reflects this,” she said.
Demand for privacy
Mike Cooke, director of organisation development at the London Borough of Camden, was reported to have taken home £107,100 last year. He did not mince his words regarding his inclusion on the list. “I think it’s unfair, misleading and inappropriate. For a start, the [Taxpayers’ Alliance] has printed information as if it is my salary, but it isn’t [accurate], so it’s misleading,” he said.
“Secondly, although I am a public servant I have a right to privacy and believe strongly I should be able to choose who I inform about my precise earnings. Finally, it’s my employer’s decision as to whether I am worth my salary, no-one else’s.”
Cooke pointed out that Camden was ranked one of the top three councils in the country by the Audit Commission. “In terms of my own job, my role is to help manage the council as a member of the board/management team, particularly leading on change management,” he said.
However, Glasgow City Council conceded that the money paid to senior management was a matter of public record, but moved swiftly to defend the £100,000 annual salary of Norma Aird, its head of corporate HR. A spokesman said: “Every salary in the council was reviewed last year under our workforce pay and benefits review. This applied from the chief executive down.”
Taxpayers would argue that they have the right to know how much senior town hall officials are paid, and hold councils accountable for their performance. Justifying the report, the Taxpayers’ Alliance said too often executives were rewarded handsomely, even when they failed, with local residents struggling to meet council tax hikes.
But Local Government Association claimed parts of the survey were outdated and inaccurate. Its deputy chief executive John Ransford criticised the alliance for making personal attacks on individuals. He also moved to defend the large pay packets. “When senior salaries in the private sector are compared with senior salaries in the public sector, the taxpayer gets very good value for money,” he said.
Many councils have bigger budgets and pay bills than FTSE 100 companies and to get the brightest people to deliver the best services for local people they need to pay a competitive wage, Ransford added.
Charles Cotton, reward adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, echoed this point. “[Councils] are large, complex employers and the job weights of HR directors will reflect this,” he said.
Too much focus on an individual’s reward could obscure that person’s contribution to the organisation, he warned.
Simple pay transparency on its own was meaningless, Cotton said. “What adds value is whether the salary is appropriated to the size of their role and that the individual is adding value to the organisation,” he said. “When you consider the enormous importance of people in the delivery of public services, it may be that rather than there being too many [HR professionals] being paid at this level, there are too few.”
Public sector union Unison, which represents the vast majority of local government workers, insisted pay transparency in the sector was a good thing. A spokeswoman said it helped to ensure that people were being paid equally and correctly. “People should be paid properly for the jobs they do and transparency would ensure this. And if you want to decent public sector service, you should be prepared to pay for it.”