9 May 2023

Taxpayers will end up paying for councils’ four-day week experiments


The public sector is often told to learn from what works and what doesn’t in the private sector. So when considering plans by South Cambridgeshire District Council to launch a four-day working week for staff, it’s worth asking if this is something that works for businesses.

Having looked at the evidence, we at the TaxPayers’ Alliance have concluded that giving council staff an extra 52 days a year of annual leave, at a time when people are already paying over the odds for services that barely function, is simply unacceptable. That’s why we’ve launched a new campaign, ‘Stop the Council Clock Off’.

Why did we end up so resolutely opposed to the plan? After all, the free market movement is by no means united on the concept of a four-day week. As Julian Jessop has put it elsewhere on CapX, ’employers should always be open to different ways of working’. But, as he points out, to avoid an overall decline in output, workers need to be 25% more productive during the four days that they are at work – and there are serious reasons to be sceptical that this can be achieved.

Jessop was discussing a global trial, highlighted by South Cambridgeshire when they announced the trial, which involved 33 companies piloting a four-day working week in which employees received 100% pay for 80% of their hours. The results were positive. But three problems with the data are apparent, as Jessop notes. Firstly, the participating businesses are self-selecting. Secondly, the study was conducted by campaign groups lobbying for a four-day week. Thirdly, the sample size was extremely limited.

There is one significant upside with the research, though. It was conducted on private businesses, whose owners would have had direct oversight and decision-making powers when entering into the trial. If it went wrong, it would be on them.

That is not the case with the public sector. The residents of South Cambridgeshire had no say over the council’s decision. There was never a vote, never a discussion. It wasn’t in manifestos. It was decided by a handful of councillors last September. As mentioned, they pointed to ongoing trials as a justification. What they couldn’t point to is a serious body of conclusive evidence that four-day weeks reliably boost productivity, let alone by 25% or more. As we’ve seen in Thurrock, Croydon and Slough, when things collapse it’s residents who pick up the tab, while council officers take big payouts and move on. So, the reason for our opposition to these plans is simple: a small local authority is not the place to launch a radical experiment.

South Cambridgeshire is a case in point. It ran a trial from January to March this year, then extended it to May 15 when a decision will be made on a further extension until March 2024. The saying, ‘nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme’ comes to mind. On May 2 the Employment and Staffing Committee made a formal recommendation to Cabinet to approve the extension, stating that ‘the trial was deemed to be a success’. According to a report on the trial, nine out of 16 key performance indicators (KPIs) saw an improvement, compared to the previous year. The rest saw no change or a decline.

Hardly decisive. Formal complaints were resolved faster and housing stock was re-let a little quicker. But some key metrics saw declines, including those which really matter to residents. The average time it took for the council to answer calls almost doubled. The percentage of calls resolved also fell. If this wasn’t inconclusive enough, when compared to the council’s performance before the pandemic, just five out of 16 KPIs saw genuine improvements. They still haven’t published full accounts for the last two years.

There is a broader problem, evidently, for council officers to solve. Looking at council performance over such a limited time period, as the council has done, is deeply disingenuous. It allows a bad year to be used to justify almost anything.

As always, there were alternatives available. In an audit of council occupancy rates, i.e. the percentage of council staff turning up to the office each day, South Cambridgeshire ranked right at the bottom. Over a seven month period in 2022, there was only one day when more than 10% of staff turned up to the office. Yet instead of looking at the simple solution of boosting staff attendance, the council have decided to use residents as guinea pigs to test the latest trendy ideas in management economics.

And this is where the crux of the problem lies. We need the private sector to innovate and experiment. And we need the public sector to learn from the private sector what works and what doesn’t. In that order. If this all goes to pot, it will be taxpayers who pay.

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 investigations campaign manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance.

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