Members’ ban helps to resolve Fairfield’s predicament

Sometimes organisations with ineffective management need the employees themselves to do the things that management seems incapable of doing.

Last month we revealed the disgraceful exercise of suspending two innocent members which, in turn, exposed a long history of unacceptable councillor/staff contact. We provided 10 examples of unacceptable contact and clearly neither the GM, the directors, the Manager Governance, the Public Officer, nor HR were aware of any of them. Ignorance isn’t always bliss.

No-one wants to look like the Bishop of Maitland when the hard questions are asked.

There are a number of the advantages of having a policy to regulate councillor/staff contact which requires requests for the contact to go to the GM.  The Division of Local Government recommends to councils that don’t have a policy or procedures identified and signed off by the GM and the Council that they should do so as a matter of priority. Like they did at Fairfield in April this year and which the Council refused.

Requiring a written request to the GM will weed out a lot of requests. It would be hard for a councillor to request contact because he wanted to squeeze an employee into a more lenient approach, or not proceeding with a fine, or tolerating illegal building or poor fire safety or at risk food premises.

More importantly, the GM would have an idea of how many requests are made, what sort of things are being requested and, in a better practice policy, the GM could decide whether the contact be provided or not. It’s all part of being the GM, responsible for the day-to-day running of the Council and the management of staff.

But if you are a GM who wants to remain blissfully ignorant of your councillors approaching staff, pressuring or encouraging them to do things they would not otherwise do, then not having a policy and procedures would be perfect. But perfect to cocoon a GM who doesn’t want to see or hear evil, but bad governance, acknowledged to be poor practice in local government and a failure to do the job properly.

But you would have thought, wouldn’t you, that when the DLG recommends that the Council adopt a policy as a matter of priority and when we expose the extent of unacceptable councillor/staff contact, and we get them thinking about reviewing their rejection of the DLG recommendation, that they would start to understand why a policy is necessary. Even councillors. Even the Mayor.

On 23 August in the Industrial Relations Commission, the Council committed to arranging a Councillor Workshop to consider the issue with an expectation that any changes to current arrangements would be recommended to a meeting of the Council on 24 September. The Council that day also agreed to keep the three unions in the loop and to consult as this process involved. But while there was a presentation to the Councillor Workshop, no one thought it appropriate to provide that presentation to the unions so that we knew what was happening.

The only advice we received was after we had already raised an issue about councillor contact with the GM by email. So a response to our request, and not all consistent with keeping people in the loop.

But it could not have been a very effective learning experience for the councillors when only two days after the workshop, a member of ours, our delegate no less, Stewart Rodham, was directed to attend a meeting in the Mayor’s Office. Immediately.

A new Lord Mayor (see depanews November 2012 - “Danger danger, warning warning as novices gain control in September elections”) who doesn’t like the way the Council processes DAs, who thinks staff are featherbedded and inefficient and who threatened to take a class action against Lake Macquarie City Council for “falling for this unjustified, worldwide idiocy about sea level rises” and not let him develop in areas threatened by rising sea levels, has been presiding over a slash and burn exercise by Acting GM, and now this week the confirmed GM for five years, Ken Goldthorpe.

Not a lot of respect for rights under the Award or the Enterprise Agreement but in the end Council has removed 80 positions. Last week both the Lord Mayor and the GM announced they were delighted with the “minimal fuss” that accompanied the loss of jobs.

Newcastle has a long and sad history of losing jobs. Whether it be BHP or anyone else at Newcastle or generally, it’s hard to find people these days who don’t understand that losing a job devastates workers, their families and has flow on impacts right through the community. But clearly Jeff and Ken either don’t understand the devastating social and personal effects, or they don’t care.

Using the word “fuss” to describe legitimate emotions or reactions as workers lose workmates, as they juggle the workload with fewer employees, and as those remaining employees are told their jobs won’t be re-evaluated until next year, trivialises the loss and reveals these two blokes as hard-heads, cost cutters and slashers who don’t feel anything. Two Tin Men.

The unions understand that sometimes restructuring involves the loss of jobs. There are protections in the State Award and other industrial instruments about how this process should be conducted, how the Council needs to provide full information about its process, and even how they can review its decision once the unions and the employees concerned have had a chance to respond. Some councils have decided not to proceed as part of this process.

What an Award or industrial instrument can’t do, is to make people understanding or caring in the process. Sadly you can’t legislate to make people better people.

Only the insensitive in a process with significant personal, familial and community repercussions, would trivialise the workforce’s response. “Fuss” is the wrong word - but because both the Tin Men have used it we can only despair for the future at Newcastle. 

We’ve got an office full of letters from a succession of Ministers for Local Government, all committing to a review and a new approach to local government. We’ve got one from the current Minister, Don Page MP, as well.

Destination 2036 started badly. Not only did it make no sense if you were looking for serious reform to invite the groups with the most to lose (general managers and mayors) to come to Dubbo to talk about it. Neither did it make any sense to leave the unions off the list of those invited because, if you are going to do anything, the unions would need to be involved in the employment arrangements affected by change.

Clearly it was the usual group at the Division of Local Government who failed to invite us (continuing a long history of failing to acknowledge the role of the unions in the industry), so the Minister wasn’t responsible for this and his office was surprised that the DLG had dropped us off the list of “stakeholders”. In the end we got invited (and we could hear the rocket from the Minister’s office penetrating those responsible in the DLG from our office 9 km from the CBD) but we chose not to go because it seemed a waste of time and we would struggle to get the floor to say anything useful. As it turns out, our instinct was confirmed by the one union official who did attend.

A number of ideas flowed from Destination 2036 but none of them had anything to do with the fundamental problem - namely, that probably 40% of New South Wales councils are not financially sustainable, can’t afford to pay their staff properly, can’t provide flexible working conditions for family purposes, can’t provide good working conditions or market rates of pay, can’t afford to train people etc. What’s the point of a talkfest that doesn’t involve the difficult question of Council sizes and amalgamation?

But it gets worse.

Like all businesses, councils are obliged to supply appropriate tools to those who need them to get the job done effectively and efficiently. They would never get away with supplying substandard tools, nor would they contemplate it because it’s a false economy. Neither would they get away with poor quality plant generally.

Why is it then that we still see professional employees wandering around with telephones that would be more appropriately exhibited in the Powerhouse Museum?

Health, building and planning professionals should be provided with phones that allow them to be efficient and make the best value of the time out on the site or on-the-job. Yet smart phones which provide access to emails and Internet and a good quality camera are still not widespread amongst local government professionals.

How much easier would it be to carry a smart phone to a site instead of a dumb phone and a camera. How much more practical and more efficient it would be to be able to use a smart phone to tap into the Council’s file system or send and receive email information. On a site and something pops up unexpectedly, an android phone provides solutions and opportunities beyond the comprehension of the old blokes often in charge of buying them.

That’s why at many councils it is the Manager of Finance or some other bean-counter who makes judgements about the sort of phone that will be provided to professional staff who could be much more efficient in the field with a multimedia phone.

Some councils are already dealing with complaints from staff about the adequacy of their phones and how much more effective they would be moving into the 21st century with a phone capable of many other functions. Many councils aren’t. Some councils give smart phones at higher levels of the organisations because they recognise they want their better paid employees maximising their efficiency and effectiveness but don’t really think about how far down the organisation this improved efficiency should go.

It doesn’t make any sense. Professional employees who work in the field must be provided with phones that allow them to do the job properly. Not in terms of how it was done in 1970, but how could be done now, taking advantage of the benefits of the new technologies

This is an industrial issue in which we can be involved. We have conducted disputes in the past about the health and safety aspects of members working in remote locations where old analog phones, or cheap telecommunication networks, didn’t provide proper coverage. While these issues still continue in some areas (meaning it makes sense from a health and safety viewpoint the two employees to go out on particular jobs, rather than one) these health and safety issues are easily won.

We would love the opportunity to grapple with a Council where some accountant has decided, without really knowing the usefulness of a smart phone to professionals working in the field, that they should be provided with something less.

Any volunteers?

I’m going on holidays. It is one thing to encourage members to take a break when they need one but in a small organisation like ours, it’s hard to get away. Nevertheless, I’m out of here on Friday 21 September and not coming back until Monday 14 October. All fresh, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready.

The office will still be able to refer you to people to give you advice while I’m gone and we have arrangements with our lawyers just in case, but in the meantime, here are some suggestions for how to keep yourself out of trouble while I’m away:

  • Annual and long service leave requires the Council’s agreement and it makes sense to get that agreement before you spend your money on a trip to Europe, for example.
  • If you’re sick and can’t get to the office, ring your supervisor/manager as soon as you can in the morning and try to avoid looking like you’ve disappeared. It’s important to ring a person you report to.
  • Try to avoid being sick on Friday and Monday because, while you might be legitimately sick, it doesn’t look good.
  • If the Council wants to interview you about something that could become a disciplinary issue and they offer you the opportunity of taking a support person, take the delegate because it’s always good to have someone there as a witness and to metaphorically hold your hand.
  • If the Council claims you’ve done something wrong and they are grilling you about it, don’t admit to it if it isn’t true because you want the meeting to end, because next they will nail you.
  • If the Council finds you been making phone calls outside the Council area during working hours and they ask why, don’t tell them it’s because you loaned your phone to a friend, because that only makes life worse.
  • Try to avoid shouting at people in the office, even if you’re angry and they may well be the stupidest applicants you’ve ever met.
  • Try to avoid shouting at other employees and NEVER shout at your boss.
  • Everyone makes mistakes, if you do, fix it as soon as you can, apologising is always a good idea and never, ever try to justify it. It’s not a matter of interpretation, it’s a mistake.
  • Don’t backdate documents to fit within timeframes.
  • Try not to get booked for speeding or other motoring offences in the Council car and, when you get picked up by radar outside Goulburn on the first day you got the car and it‘s your birthday, with all your mates in the car, don’t tell the cop you were lucky he didn’t catch you 10 km earlier.
  • If you leaseback agreement says you report minor damage, do so.
  • Don’t pinch things from the Council - whether that be stationary or petrol outside your entitlements under the leaseback agreement.
  • Don’t, if the Council is asking legitimate questions about where you were or what you were doing, go home panicking because you’ve been sprung and then go on stress leave. It’s hard to come off stress leave and you still have to deal with the issue.
  • Don’t do any applicants or objectors any favours beyond your normal professional responsibilities because they can often be misinterpreted or misunderstood and you never know who’s watching.
  • If the ICAC turns up and asks questions, assume they already know the answers and tell them exactly what you know. You never know what they know and they wouldn’t be there looking for a fire if they didn’t have evidence of some smoke.
  • Be careful of the images and other things you receive, send and store on the Council’s computer. If you wouldn’t be prepared to let your mum see it, it shouldn’t be on the Council system.
  • Don’t call the HR flunky unprofessional, unhelpful, or an idiot - even if they are. Leave that to me when I get back.

 

Sadly, things don’t seem to get any better at Greater Taree.  A bad year last year with a clumsy investigation and the ambushing of staff in interviewing them, a strike by our members, some unpleasant and dishonest effects from the restructure carried out earlier in the year, and then squandering money on lawyers who would rather litigate than conciliate reasonable claims that could assist staff morale. 

And then the Council resolved to knock off a gratuity policy for resigning employees that had been around nearly forever and in the face of the unanimous opposition of long-serving staff and their three unions. Charming.

And now having two unanimous recommendations from selection panels for new appointments overthrown by the senior managers.  Why have a panel of people who know about the work and interview the candidates if you’re then going to reject their unanimous recommendation?

Our members are wondering what the point is of sitting on a selection panel if the director (called an executive leader there) and the GM (mercifully still called a GM) reject it.  Neither of these managers hold any professional qualification in health, building or planning anyway.

There has been community unrest too as assessment times blow out.  And they blow out because the Council isn’t serious about replacing people who go to better places. Even though it advertises a salary range that could attract suitable candidates, they refuse to appoint at above entry level.  So they get no-one much, end up spending more money to fruitlessly advertise but with the same salary restrictions and 60% of the establishment staff end up carrying the load.

So morale plummets precisely because of management policies – something that seems to have escaped the Mayor who accepts that “staff morale could be better” but famously asserted to the Manning River Times that he ‘fully supports the senior staff in their actions to improve staff morale”. What the?

Canterbury Council's general manager Jim Montague is spearheading a drive back to Victorian England by introducing new standards for communication amongst employees. Paralleling the genteelism of a previous era (and an ethnocentric focus on nice white Anglo-Saxons), when they preferred the word "unmentionables" to the word "underwear", Jim has decided that the words "attractive" and "petite" are a breach of the Council’s Code of Conduct. And so is the expression "high maintenance". What the?

You can expect lots of potty-mouth employees having their mouths washed out by HR with this new standard.

We accept the view that a cultured and advanced society communicates in a cultured and sensitive way. Whether language is acceptable or unacceptable is usually in the eye of the beholder and fundamentally appropriate or inappropriate only when it is placed in context.

Canterbury is caught up and confused about language. There are some contexts that come with a language warning. Without pandering too much to stereotypes, the language used out on the road in a gang is generally stronger than that used by professional employees. But professional employees are quite capable of getting down and dirty with the best of them, and it is appropriate if the context is right. It might be okay in the pub but it's not okay with Grandma.

We just went through an exercise of an investigation of a member after a complaint was made at Canterbury. The area in which the member works was formerly housed in the depot where, regardless of sensitivities, it was all very blokey and outdoors. A move to the administrative centre at Belmore a couple of years ago saw our member, amongst others, issuing some guidelines about the new etiquette and the new context. Steps were taken regularly to ask the fruity communicators to take it outside.

depa would support any council that wanted to initiate an educational program to improve the quality of communication at work. It would be developed through the Consultative Committee, union reps on the Consulted Committee would be communicating with their members and when the new standards were introduced, everyone could get on board.

There could be a swear jar in every office. Gosh, what a great idea.

But the idea that a new standards is to be adopted, as it has at Canterbury, and then the new standard applied retrospectively, is fundamentally unfair. A bit like retrospectively imposing an 80 km speed limit in an area that was previously 100 km and then booking people who exceeded 80 when it was legal to do so. No one would think that acceptable.

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