Friday, March 21, 2008

Absenteeism among the decision-makers

By Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best's account of the City's policy on administrative pay, a 5.4 per cent increase that gave Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Fielding a $248,824 salary last year was part of a program to retain "the best of the best" in London. This might even be an admirable policy if there were any demonstration at all that London's administrators are in fact among "the best of the best" or even competent. In the absence of any evidence pointing to that conclusion, however, taxpayers will have to take the Mayor's word for it and dismiss any suggestion that her word might be informed in any way by her long-standing close association with Fielding.

Fielding's in-house reputation may account for the genial reception he was accorded earlier this month for his presentation to Council on the subject of absenteeism among municipal employees under his administration's oversight (PDF) — figures that are now reported as an average of 19.4 days per employee per year, or twice the 9.7 day national average for municipal workers. To the untrained taxpayer who must bear the brunt of the estimated $485,000 cost for every day contributing to the average, these numbers alone might call into question Fielding's competency at managing the surfeit of highly-paid municipal administrators who are responsible for city workers. In any event, they can only speculate which or how many of the eleven recommendations Fielding made to address the problem — most of which are couched strictly in bureaucratic mission-speak — are simply a continuation of his administration's existing "engage[ment] in addressing absenteeism […] for the last four years." Given that absenteeism has climbed over the last four years, a little less engagement by administration might actually make for an improvement.

Of course, taxpayers can only speculate because politicians have declined to find out the answer out on their behalf, as they have with the question of why administration hadn't been forthcoming with its recommendations after four years of engagement until now. Far from questions regarding his competency, Fielding instead received the praise of many Councillors for his efforts as well as the gratitude of Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best for an "incredible amount of work" put into the presentation — work that, from the position of those paying for it, might be described as a necessary exercise in damage control in the face of sudden scrutiny over not only his administration's performance but also over concerns of secrecy and an apparent reluctance to communicate administration's problems to Council or to the public until brought to Council's attention by Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen at the behest of some of his constituents.

As the principle support and government of administration, Councillors cannot help but be acutely aware that the absenteeism problem reflects poorly on their oversight. So it is no surprise that many of them should give themselves over to being mollified by Fielding's assurances — enough not only to dispose of their interest in the matter for the foreseeable future but also to deflect the issue to the improbable one of perceived insults towards city workers. Aside from the Mayor's gratuitous apology "on behalf of others" for that "disservice," Coun. Nancy Branscombe took the opportunity for a piece of preposterous grandstanding before the presentation's audience of firefighters and unionized city workers packing the gallery when she accused "some" Councillors of making irresponsible and flippant remarks about their work ethic. Whatever sensitivities those workers might have about their work ethic, Coun. Branscombe is well aware that a search for any of these putative remarks would be entirely in vain. The theatrics on both sides of Council chambers certainly reinforce at least one common perception, however — that politicians are often more interested in cultivating the approval of their unions than protecting the interests of taxpayers.

The reluctance of some Councillors to address the absenteeism problem should not, however, be taken to disparage all of the recommendations culminating from "four years of engagement," which include the sensible precautions of supporting "changes to the number of 'sick day codes' and apply[ing] strict definitions to their application," endorsing discussions of "sick day entitlements" in future contract negotiations, surveying other municipalities' practises, and developing tools to track replacement wage costs (PDF). We would like to add make-or-break performance targets for municipal managers, but the sad truth is that they are relatively powerless to address absenteeism on either an individual or group basis except to monitor the problem, just as even the most worthwhile of policy recommendations will prove only minimally effective. The reasons for this are amply demonstrated by the particular phenomenon that attends every Council discussion of the issue, but neither politicians, administration nor the media seem interested to even remark upon the forceful display of unionized city workers packing Council galleries, let alone to draw the necessary conclusions from it.

Much of the speculation when the issue was first raised surrounded the psychological reasons behind absenteeism — feelings that one's contributions are not adequately "valued," or other variations upon the theme. But the simplest and most obvious explanation is that employees will most often miss time when their attendance makes little difference to either their own job performance or the productivity of their workplace. This kind of redundancy is built into not only union contracts but also the expectations of departmental administrators in public service, and it is a security that municipal unions will expend their tax-funded resources to protect at all costs. The disproportionate political power that these unions wield over public decision-making undermines the ability of cities to deliver services efficiently and to budget in the public interest — as when a threatened CUPE strike in Hamilton averted the City's plans to control expenses by employing more casual workers. Politicians claiming to oversee the public interest more often than not must defer to union management in questions of service delivery and cost containment, an arrangement that produces decidedly one-sided benefits going to unions and not to taxpayers. One would be tempted to conclude that municipal services are the property of public service unions rather than of taxpayers or their representatives.

The solution to absenteeism is both simple and straight-forward, even if the ability to achieve it is less so — minimize the influence of unions on personnel and contracts by out-sourcing basic services like public works maintenance, information management and permit issuance to the private sector which has, unlike municipal departments, a financial and not simply political incentive to reduce unnecessary costs like those associated with absenteeism. Given municipal authority over contract deliverables, out-sourcing is a remedy that would save taxpayers money without inflicting costs except to union privileges.

Until municipal services are wrested away from the control of unions, hand-wringing over absenteeism will remain just so many presentations and reports without any real achievement. Considering administration's collusion in negotiating union contracts, out-sourcing management is another idea worth exploring.


BBS said...

This never ceases to amaze me. When I worked in supervision at a Big 3 plant, anytime my absenteeism exceeded 5% in any week, I earned a meeting with my Department Manager. Twice in any 4 week period and you earned a visit with the plant manager. Failure to improve after that resulted in visiting the plant manager to explain every unplanned absence. If improvements didn't happen after all this attention, you no longer had a job.

With an average of 40 to 60 employees I generally managed a rate of 2 to 4%.

Mr Fielding's "collaborative approach" sounds like a lot of talk and no action. Every workplace of a significant size deals with chronic absenteeism. How you deal with it determines whether your workplace has individual or systemic problems.

BBS said...

From Mr. Fielding's report, under Recommendations. This would almost be funny if it wasn't so sad.

"Endorse regular reporting on absenteeism and attendance in standardized formats – monthly for managers/employees; and quarterly reporting to Council"

If they can't manage daily/weekly reporting across the corporation they might as well save all the money on the experts and studies, nothing will ever be accomplished.

The report reads like the typical 3 D's of bureaucratic communication - Divert, Deflect and Distract.

Jake said...

The audit from KPMG on absenteeism, discovered that the numbers were worse than Fielding initially reported. This highlights, yet again, that Mr. Fielding has been unable to perform the basic responsibilities of his job.

Mr. Fielding was aware of this problem months ahead of council and this is proven when he tried to fill a new job position that dealt with absenteeism. Luckily, Paul Van Meerbergen questioned the reasons for this new position which got the spotlight put on chronic absenteeism.

Coun. Van Meerbergen is the only reason the issue of absenteeism is out in the open. Without him, we would not even be discussing it.

To have Nancy Branscombe try to link any debate over absenteeism with 'offending' civic employees work ethic is being cunningly orchestrated to cease debate over the issue. She is trying to make the issue 'untouchable' to discussion and only makes any solutions more unattainable.

I have a feeling that Jeff Fielding will be in search of new employment before this year is out.