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News release from: 15/05/2023

Four-day week trial extension after independent analysis shows services maintained – and some improved

Four-day week trial extension after independent analysis shows services maintained – and some improved

A trial of a four-day week at South Cambridgeshire District Council has been extended by 12 months, after independently reviewed data showed the initial pilot was a success. At a time of increased public sector spending pressures, the four-day week aims to allow the Council to continue to deliver excellent services to residents and businesses, whilst improving consistency and reducing cost.

Following the well-publicised success of many similar trials in the private sector, the District Council became the first local authority in the country to trial this way of working between January and March 2023. Around 450 desk-based staff have been involved. The Council decided to undertake the trial because of the acute recruitment and retention issues it was facing – mirroring the national recruitment and retention situation in the public sector.

Before the trial started, the Council was spending about £2million a year on agency staff, often in specialist roles where the private sector pays more. This bill could be halved if all the agency posts were filled permanently. Although the three-month trial wasn’t expected to see improvement in recruitment, because there was no certainty about whether it would continue, the Council’s annual wage bill has already decreased by £300,000. Additionally, some staff have decided to stay at the Council when they may have otherwise moved-on.

The Council outlined in September 2022 how, for more than a year, it had only been able to fill around eight out of every ten, or fewer, of its vacancies. Not being able to fill vacant posts – or using agency staff to cover them – is not only expensive but also disruptive. For example, when case officers change during the process of a planning application, it can cause delays and frustration because a lot of context and institutional memory is lost.

The combination of reduced agency spends and improved recruitment during the three-month trial is a positive indication of what the Council hopes to see in the year-long trial, saving costs whilst maintaining high quality public services.

At a meeting today (Monday 15 May 2023) Cabinet members agreed to extend the four-day week trial up until the end of March 2024. The Council had already pledged to investigate expanding the trial to its bin crews – which are part of the Greater Cambridge Shared Waste service with Cambridge City Council. Cabinet members also agreed to begin that trial for bin crews this summer – pending agreement from Cambridge City Council.

A four-day week is where staff complete 100% of their work, in 80% of the time, for 100% of their pay, by becoming more productive. The Council had outlined how it would use its standard performance metrics which are regularly monitored to keep a check on how services performed during the three-month trial from January to March this year. An industry-standard health and wellbeing survey was also used to measure the impact on staff, with one survey carried out in August 2022 before the four-day week trial was announced, and a follow-up in April this year.

The Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge was asked to independently review the Council’s data from the trial, to ensure it was analysed without any risk of bias. They analysed data from 18 different key areas, covering performance in Planning, Housing, Transformation, Human Resources and Corporate Services and Finance.

The data shows:

  • Nine out of the 16 areas monitored show substantial improvement when comparing the trial period from January to March to the same period in 2022.
  • The remaining seven areas monitored either remain at similar levels compared to the same period last year or saw a slight decline.
  • The Bennett Institute noted however that not a single area of performance fell to a concerning level during the trial.

The full data from the trial has been published on the Council's website.

Dr Nina Jörden, Research Associate at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge, commented: “At the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Cambridge, we worked directly with the South Cambridgeshire District Council to guide and support this unique trial from a scientific perspective. Through rigorous analysis of Council data, we were able to demonstrate how the four-day week positively impacts individual wellbeing, increases workplace productivity, and maintains - in some services even improves - Council performance. This collaboration is ground-breaking in that other public sector organisations will benefit from the insights gained to better address recruitment and retention challenges, improve the physical and mental health of their employees, and respond to a changing society - leading to better outcomes for citizens and the public at large for the long-term.”

The Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith, said: “The data from our trial, which has been robustly analysed by a highly qualified team at the University of Cambridge, has shown that our services to residents and businesses have been maintained – or in some cases, improved, and there has been a positive impact on staff wellbeing. We can therefore confidently say that this pioneering trial has been a success. It is now time to see whether a four-day week can have a positive impact on the critical recruitment and retention issues that we face over a longer term. The savings we make will help support the delivery of frontline services, especially for those impacted by the cost of living crisis. This is all in line with our aim to be a modern and caring Council. We should also remember that the five-day work week is around 100 years old. Across the country, we work some of the longest hours in Europe and yet somehow, have one of the least productive economies. This idea of a four-day week is absolutely not about working less. It is about working smarter and becoming more productive. That is exactly what we have done in the first part of this year.”

Joe Ryle, Director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, added: “We're really pleased that after a successful trial, a year-long extension has been approved by councillors. This decision should give confidence to the many other councils across the UK who are considering launching their own four-day week trials. The evidence shows that a four-day week with no loss of pay improves productivity and is a win-win for both workers and employers.”

Work has also been taking place during the past few months to draw-up plans for bin crews to trial a four-day week. They were not involved in the first phase of the trial due to the complexities of assessing the changes needed to a service that empties bins at almost 130,000 households across Greater Cambridge.

That work has been taking place in tandem with a project to review the existing bin collection routes across South Cambridgeshire and the city of Cambridge; this work was due to take place regardless, to consider the new homes that have been built locally in recent years, and ensure bins are collected as efficiently as possible.

At today’s Cabinet meeting, Cabinet members agreed to approve the trial of a four-day week waste collection service for three months from this summer. Cambridge City Council will also discuss and consider these plans before this is confirmed.

If Cambridge City Council agree, it will mean changes to bin days for some residents across Greater Cambridge later this year. Councillors have pledged to give any residents impacted plenty of notice and support where needed.

South Cambridgeshire District Council’s Lead Cabinet Member for Environmental Services, Cllr Henry Batchelor, said: “Nationally and locally it is often difficult to recruit staff – especially at the Waste Service which we share with our neighbours at Cambridge City Council. To help deal with this and further support the wellbeing of our hardworking crews, we need to try something new. For us, that is a proposed four-day week trial – which we have been testing successfully amongst our desk-based colleagues since the start of the year. We would ensure any residents impacted by this proposed change are given as much notice as possible. Our partners at Cambridge City Council of course still need to take a formal decision on this trial for waste crews before it is confirmed.”

For the past two years Greater Cambridge Shared Waste has only been able to fill around 133 of almost 150 driver and loader posts. More recently, there remains an average of eight agency staff covering driver and loader positions – at an additional cost to the taxpayer. The report discussed at today’s Cabinet meeting also outlines how using fewer agency staff should lead to fewer bins being missed, as permanent crews become more familiar with their rounds.

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