GREG RAY: Co-ordinating cutbacks

PLEASE don’t talk to the lifeguard, sang Diane Ray (no relation), many years ago.

This was good advice then and even better advice today, since around Newcastle way the lifeguards may be feeling a little stressed and might not appreciate distractions.

Newcastle City Council is desperately seeking ways to save money, as you may have heard, and one area where it seems costs may be shaved is in lifeguard staff at the city’s pools and beaches.

The summer swimming season is being shortened, full-time paid lifeguards are being pulled off the beaches at weekends, and I gather everything is up for negotiation in the quest for efficiency.

I had a letter on this subject from a council lifeguard (putting his job at risk, perhaps, by talking to the media) expressing sadness that he and his colleagues were being forced to live with job insecurity and that services to the swimming public were being cut.

Naturally I felt terrible for the poor fellow. Nobody could enjoy working under the threat of sacking or redundancy. But then this lifeguard got me offside by trying to suggest that the council could keep its frontline life-saving services intact and still make savings by cutting some middle management.

Silly chap, I thought.

How in the world would the council be able to find cost savings if it cut the jobs of the people who are best qualified to advise them? That’s why we pay our rates: to hire managers to make sure our money isn’t being wasted.

Anyway, he carried on with his crazy idea at some length. Some time ago, he wrote, the council used to have a co-ordinator who oversaw both pools and beaches, but at a certain point decided to create two new management positions, a beach co-ordinator and a pool co-ordinator.

The original co-ordinator was kept on, he asserted, as overall aquatic co-ordinator.

I can’t say whether his information is correct, and I wouldn’t have any idea what any of these people do – any more than they’d know what I do in my job. For all any of us know, they may be flat out all day, every day. My first reaction was to ask my correspondent how he could argue with the need for an extra layer of management co-ordination above him?

Because if co-ordinators became unco-ordinated (not that they would, but you can’t be too careful when people’s lives and safety might conceivably be at stake) you would need somebody there on the spot to get them re-co-ordinated. These things have a knock-on effect, and if one co-ordinator let the other co-ordinators get unco-ordinated, how on earth would the frontline workers be able to get anything done?

The public would be on the phone right away, and pesky newspaper columnists would be writing spiteful snipey paragraphs about unsatisfactory council services.

Back to my correspondent, who got right down to tin tacks, making pointed remarks about how much co-ordinators allegedly get paid and debating whether or not they should have access to council-supplied cars.

I phoned the lord mayor, Jeff McCloy, to get his views, and he told me the council needed ‘‘enormous changes’’ in its culture and structure. He was confident this would come, but not overnight.

He suggested I call the general manager, who sent me a statement pointing out that pools and beaches are staffed by a core of permanent employees and lots of casuals and temps.

‘‘This takes appropriate level of co-ordination for initial recruitment, operating and training,’’ the statement noted.

On the other hand: ‘‘council organisational structure is being reviewed in parallel with implementing the current staff reductions (which includes reduction in management levels) and adjustments to the structure will be made as part of the transition process’’.

The good thing, I suppose, is that if frontline employee numbers shrink, co-ordinators may be better able to monitor those who remain, ensuring the public gets good value for money.