13 July 2023

A four-day week for councils is nothing but a public sector get-rich-quick scheme


On paper, the four-day week sounds marvellous. Who wouldn’t be tempted, after all, by the prospect of working fewer hours for the same salary?

Its proponents share an almost messianic zeal for the idea, which has become a totem for progressive, modern working practices. For those hoping to expand this practice to the public sector, an apparently successful trial by South Cambridgeshire District Council is proof that it’s a policy whose time has come.

Unfortunately, it’s nonsense that relies on cherry-picked data to support a bogus claim that key metrics have improved under the South Cambs scheme. The council claim that of 16 key performance indicators (KPIs), 11 showed an improvement compared to before the trial. But this used an already dismal year as its baseline. When compared to before the pandemic, the number of KPIs showing an improvement slips to five.

Any organisation moving to a four-day week would have to increase their productivity by 25% to get five days’ worth of work into four. Failing to do so would mean a loss for local taxpayers, who would be paying the same for lower output. And even with the 25% increase, we would just be breaking even.

The problem is that such a rise in productivity would be utterly unprecedented in the public sector.

In the 20 years up to 2019, public sector productivity only increased by 4.1%. Are we really expected to believe that a council can achieve a 25% increase in productivity at the drop of the hat? There’s no evidence that this could happen, and taxpayers would be left either with a worse service or a huge bill for the extra staff who would need to be recruited to maintain service levels.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of a four-day week per se, and if a private company wants to take the gamble, they should go right ahead. By the same token, though, there aren’t that many private companies whose customers rely on them day in, day out in the way ratepayers may rely on council services. When taxpayers’ money is on the line, there needs to be a far stronger evidence base for this kind of experimentation.

Another claim put about by the four-day week lobby is that reduced working hours lead to lower staff turnover, which in turn saves councils money by reducing spend on agency staff. In South Cambridgeshire, the council says that £300,000 has already been ‘saved’ annually on agency staff since the trial commenced. That sounds great, but it ignores the cost of the permanent staff that have been brought in to replace them, meaning actual savings have been more like £150,000.

In any case, any savings from replacing agency staff would be dwarfed by the potential savings that would be possible if productivity actually shot up 25%. After all, if all of the council’s work could be done in four days instead of five, staffing levels could be reduced by a fifth, could they not?

Laughably, the council cites the most basic management measures that have been brought in as part of the adjustment. Shorter meetings, fewer emails, clamping down on duplication and working from the right location are all mentioned as contributing to the improved productivity. But not one of these changes has anything to do with working four days a week. Indeed, if they wanted to improve productivity, why didn’t they bring these measures in in the first place, instead of asking taxpayers to pay for 52 extra days off for the council’s staff.

Thankfully, following the Taxpayers’ Alliance’s Stop the Clock Off campaign, the local government minister Lee Rowley has stepped in to tell South Cambridgeshire that their trial must come to an end immediately.

The four-day week sounds too good to be true, and it is. Unless you have been mismanaging time to a huge extent, you cannot simply reduce hours worked and increase productivity to fully make up for it. It’s the workplace equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme, one in which public sector workers get a 25% pay bump without having to do very much more at all.

This isn’t the end of it, unfortunately. Other councils are planning to hop aboard the gravy train and gamble with residents’ services. Should they do so, it’s us taxpayers who will suffer.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Elliot Keck is Head of campaigns of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.