EDITORIAL: Trimming council's wage bill 

VIRTUALLY every study ever made of bureaucracy has wrestled with the apparent fact that one of the dominant characteristics of bureaucratic organisations is their tendency to self-perpetuation.

Indeed, it may also be true that bureaucracies, in addition to self-perpetuation, also automatically expand to the limit of all available resources within their reach.

If that happens to be true, it would explain why local government organisations often seem unable to effectively rein in staff numbers and, consequently, contain their operating budgets.

Some Newcastle ratepayers may regard their city council as a case in point.

In 2010 the council spent at least $7million on termination payouts for dozens of senior staff, but wound up with only 12 fewer full-time equivalent employees than it had before the exercise.

Earlier this year it was reported that the council’s annual expenses had blown out by $26.4million, and that for the first time the council would spend more money on employee wages and expenses than it would receive in rates.

Soaring employee costs, which were expected to reach $88.5million next year, prompted a review of staff and services.

It has now emerged that the council employs 230 more staff than it did two years ago. The most recent figures show the council had 1429 employees last month.

That’s well ahead of its larger neighbour, Lake Macquarie, which employs 1176 staff.

The council’s comment on these figures – that the low number in 2010 was ‘‘an anomaly’’ – appears to suggest that the organisation sees steady but continuous growth in employee numbers as the natural state of affairs.

If that’s the case then it should not be. 

Financial sustainability is popular jargon in local government these days, but the reality represented by the concept can’t co-exist with a perpetually growing workforce and wages bill.

Few bureaucracies – confronted with demands to trim expenses – will readily admit that any of their employees are superfluous. Most seem to prefer to warn of dire cuts to services and public amenity if their organisations are required to live within their means. 

In the context of local government, a united body of elected councillors with a strong political mandate for reform might expect to be able to force the issue.

That’s hardly the case in Newcastle, however, where the elected council is – once again – a sharply divided body that may struggle to prosecute bureaucratic reform.

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