It’s high time for greater transparency in the world of interim managers at Bristol City Council, writes Tin Hinson
Colin Molton works four days a week as Bristol council's executive director of growth and regeneration. But his employer is not the local authority – it’s a recruitment agency, Penna.
The council's pay policy says that maximum pay for a director is £165,000 per year. But, even part-time, Molton's services cost the council £263,000, 50% more than that.
At four days a week, that amounts to around £1,450 a day. And despite Molton’s ‘interim’ title, he has been in post since January 2018.
Policy states that all directors and executive directors have to go through a competitive interview process and face a selection committee of councillors. But the process for appointing interim staff is opaque, and runs via a private recruitment agency.
The above facts reflect growing concern at the use of so-called interim appointments by Bristol council. Conservative councillor for Bishopsworth Richard Eddy, a member of the council's human resources oversight committee, told the Cable that the use of interim staff turned the council's own pay policy document into “a tissue of lies”.
Showing that it’s not just those opposed to the current administration that feel this way, Labour councillor for Brislington West Harriet Bradley added that “all members of the committee had concerns about the use of interim staff on a long-term basis”.
Besides Molton, Bristol council’s service director for care and support, Terry Dafter, was employed on an interim basis for nearly two years, with total annual remuneration of £215,000, before taking up his post permanently. Meanwhile, a democratic services monitoring officer was employed for three months at a cost of £93,000.
These figures are not included in the living wage certification which claims to hold maximum pay to 10 times that of the minimum council salary. They also would affect gender pay ratio figures – which councillors told us are already particularly bad in the growth and regeneration department.
The council points out that some of these amounts will go to the recruitment agency, Penna, and that the figures also include provision for pension and other employment rights.
But these eye-watering sums are only part of the reason to be concerned. Several councillors, both opposition and Labour, told us they were concerned that using interim appointments allows the mayor to avoid the usual system of scrutiny over appointments.
The former chair of the oversight committee, Labour Cllr Jon Wellington told us Bristol council discouraged interim appointments for anything longer than a few months, and that the local authority “is making progress in clearing interim staff… from a peak of 13 in 2016”.
It is clear though there has been instability in the council's senior management. Last year four out of eleven posts in the senior team were either being covered by someone else, an interim or acting appointment, or else had their job title changed.
But in 2017 the number was even higher. This unsteadiness was criticised in an external report on the council which said that partners desperately needed “anchor points and stability”.
There is an argument to be made that although the council might have to pay a premium to get the right people into jobs, including by making interim appointments, the costs are small compared with its overall budget. Moreover, the necessity of getting things done within a four-year term means senior posts cannot be left unfilled.
Potential conflicts of interest
But the dangers of interim contracts go beyond the cash outlay for council taxpayers. There are also questions around potential conflicts of interest.
While there are no allegations of wrongdoing, such links can fuel speculation that on their way in and out of the council, interim managers are being paid for their contact books and inside knowledge as much as their competence – and that is an uncomfortable fit with public accountability. Greater transparency is long overdue.