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Towards the end of last year, traffic management supervisor Damien McClean emailed two colleagues in Dublin City Council with a warning.
He didn’t have enough people to staff the city’s traffic control centre, he wrote on 11 December.
“Despite all efforts by staff to keep at least one person on per shift- finally the numbers just don’t cover all the shifts,” he said to traffic officer Damien Cooney and head of transport Brendan O’Brien.
“This leaves the control room unmanned between the hours of 7am -3pm for Monday 12/12/22 and Tuesday 13/12/22,” McClean wrote, in the email released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The traffic control centre in the council’s Civic Offices on Wood Quay is meant to be staffed 24/7. From there, traffic engineers oversee the traffic-lights system in the city.
But, over the course of 2022, McClean wrote, staffing levels had “dropped from 13 to just 7 operators operating over 24 hours- 2 of those 7 have reported sick”.
The council has not responded to queries about whether, in the end, the control centre was left un-staffed for these shifts, whether it has been left unstaffed for other shifts, and, if so whether that created any safety risks for people on the roads during those times.
Across the council, a lack of staff is a barrier to providing services, according to interviews with council staff and councillors.
The council has a 10–11 percent vacancy rate at the moment, a spokesperson said, though he did not respond to multiple queries about how that has changed over time, or what departments have the most empty posts.
The council has permission to hire more staff, and has the money to do it, but it just isn’t able to recruit and retain people, chief executive Owen Keegan told councillors at their monthly meeting on 8 May.
“We simply are no longer competitive in the labour market,” Keegan said.
The council is certainly not the only organisation struggling to get the staff it needs during this period of low unemployment. But it is at a disadvantage compared to, say, private companies, because of its slow, onerous recruitment process, and relatively low and inflexible pay, council staff and councillors say.
The answer is higher, fairer pay for council staff, says Richy Carruthers, national secretary for local government at Fórsa, the biggest union representing workers at Dublin City Council.
The number of employees working at Dublin City Council in December 2022 was 18 percent lower than in December 2008, according to a memo sent from the chief executive’s office to councillors.
Numbers have been rising in recent years but still have not recovered from the post-crash austerity period.
In 2008, the head-count was 7,278. It fell to 5,618 in 2016, a decline of nearly 23 percent.
“Following the financial crisis in 2008, the City Council undertook a significant restructuring programme,” the Keegan said in a May reply to a written query on staffing levels by Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan.
“The subsequent moratorium on recruitment saw employee numbers drop significantly until 2015 when restrictions were lifted,” the reply said.
Since 2016, the numbers have been inching back up – reaching 5,951 in December of last year, according to the memo. That’s still 18 percent below 2008 numbers.
Not only are the numbers still lower than they were, they’re also lower than they should be, according to the council spokesperson.
“The total number of positions and vacancies within Dublin City Council is a dynamic figure,” a council spokesperson said. “In general the City Council vacancy rate is currently running at approximately 10-11%.”
He did not respond to requests for vacancy rates in previous years, or by department. “There are recruitment challenges across all areas, but specifically in IT, Finance and construction-related professions,” he said.
Last year the council recruited “somewhere over 400 people”, Keegan, the chief executive, told councillors on 8 May.
That was hard enough because, “we’re getting a very high refusal rate for people to go to the competitive process. We offer them a job and they turn it down.”
But with people leaving, “the net increase at the end of the year was about seven”, Keegan said.
“We had a significant underspend on salaries or wages and salaries last year because we simply cannot recruit people,” he said.
The results of these staff shortages are clear, councillors say.
For example, in the south-west inner-city, there’s a whole list of major projects that are held up for lack of project managers, says Labour Councillor Darragh Moriarty.
He named the Dolphin’s Barn public-realm improvement project, an interim cycle route from Suir Road to Thomas Street, improvements to the public-realm in Inchicore, and plans to do something with the now vacant former library on Emmett Road.
“All of these projects just aren’t progressing because of a lack of man/woman power,” Moriarty said.
Cat O’Driscoll, a Social Democrats councillor, says she’s noticed that it takes a very long time to get a decision made on a road-related project, which she says is because of a lack of engineers.
This has delayed things like road-resurfacing, and new pedestrian crossings, O’Driscoll says. The Traffic Department’s 2022 end-of-year report reflected this.
“Due to staffing issues and the loss of a number of staff, progress on the installation of 19 new pedestrian crossings was delayed,” it says.
There are serious problems in the traffic department, said Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Heney. “Traffic engineers seem to go quickly.”
Green Party Councillor Hazel Chu also pointed to the lack of engineers and its impacts on transport projects.
Fianna Fáil Councillor Daryl Barron, who represents Donaghmede, in the council’s North Central Area, said that in his area, there was no senior executive officer from December to March.
There has also been a lack of environmental officers, and other staff in the area, Barron said. “It’s right across the board, not just at senior level, but also at junior level.”
Doolan, the Sinn Féin councillor, says he’s particularly concerned about staff shortages in the housing department.
In answer to the question from Doolan, the chief executive in May provided numbers of staff by department from 2016 to 2022.
These show an overall increase in full-time equivalent staff from 5,359 to 5,638, about 5 percent. But also that in some departments numbers peaked in 2018 or 2019 and have been falling since.
Among those departments, crucially, Doolan says, is “Housing and Community Services”, which hit 1,045 full-time equivalents in 2018 and is now down to 971, a fall of about 7 percent.
Doolan says that, among other things, this means there’s not enough staff to process applications to get on the housing list, or to transfer to more suitable accommodation, in a timely manner.
Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam said he’d noticed shortages among planners and engineers, in particular.
“We cannot hold on to new and young planners who come into the city. Same with engineers,” he said.
Noeleen Reilly, an independent councillor, said that the staff shortages are apparent in the parks and building maintenance sections too.
“In 2008 resources were an issue. Now it’s a lack of ability to recruit and retain staff,” she said.
Everyone says council chief executive Owen Keegan should do something about the problem, says Chu, the Green Party councillor.
“There are many things Owen Keegan should do, but I don’t think with this they haven’t been trying,” she said.
Better Pay and Conditions
There seems to be pretty broad agreement among council staff, councillors and council managers for the reasons for the problem.
“The City Council is competing with private sector organisations and with other public sector employers in an environment where there is near full-employment, skills shortages in key areas, high rates of employee turnover, and cost of living pressures on pay,” says a report on council employment provided by a council spokesperson.
People considering jobs at the council look at housing costs, and the general cost of living in the city, and conclude that they’ve got to go for the higher salaries in the private sector, says Chu, the Green Party councillor.
“People don’t think they can continue to live in Dublin unless they work in the private sector,” Chu says.
But the issue of raising pay is beyond the council’s control, said Carruthers, of Fórsa. That’s something that’s decided in national-level agreements between the state and public-sector workers, he said.
O’Driscoll, the Social Democrats councillor, said that, in addition to issues with pay, the council is also not as flexible as some other workplaces when it comes to things like working from home, or flexi-time or job shares.
“It’s not only the pay,” O’Driscoll said. “It’s also how suitable a job is for their lifestyle.”
Carruthers said local authorities still can’t match the private sector on this.
“We reached an interim agreement with the local authority sector last June for blended working, where people could engage in remote work and on a case-by-case basis, but there is definitely less flexibility in the public sector as in the private sector,” he said.
Also on the table for national-level negotiations is bringing in a “job evaluation” system for the local-authority sector, Carruthers said.
After the crash, “in order to keep the show on the road and deliver frontline services to members of the public, workers were asked to take on extra duties,” he said. “So we’ve sort of, the sector has normalised the situation where people are working at a higher level and being paid at a lower rate.”
The union wants to bring a system of job evaluation, which it says is available already in the HSE and in higher education, to local government.
Workers could request a job evaluation, which Carruthers said is an “independent analytical tool used by employers to ensure that people are … being paid the appropriate rate for the job”.
“The local government sector continues to resist that claim, and we’re moving into a period of industrial strife,” he said.
Earlier this month, Fórsa announced that its “local authority staff have backed industrial action over job evaluation, voting overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action, up to and including strike action”.
More Powers and Responsibility
Beyond the question of pay and conditions is the question of whether people who have lots of other options of places to work see the council as a good choice.
“Maybe people don’t realise it’s a good place to be employed,” said Heney, the Fianna Fáil councillor.
Barron, her party colleague, said his father and grandfather had worked at the council.
“There’s a lot of loyal staff, good staff, lifers I call them, who never want to leave,” he said. “I think it’s still an attractive place to work.”
But the austerity years, and privatisation of services, have reduced what the council has the capacity and the mandate to do, said Carruthers, of Fórsa.
“There has been a chipping away of democratic control and power within the local government sector,” he said. “Lots of services have been outsourced and privatised and that continues to lead to frustration amongst staff and also the general public.”
Fórsa and Dublin city councillors held an event in Leinster House on 10 May demanding that the council be given back power over waste-management services – something that a January report from the Institute of Public Administration said would require legislation.
McAdam, the Fine Gael councillor, said that another thing that might make the council an even more attractive place to work would be making it more dynamic.
“Dublin City Council is inherently a conservative organisation. It is slow to move,” he said.
If the council had an elected, executive mayor and an “executive cabinet” directly responsible to the people of Dublin, they’d make things happen faster, McAdam said.
Instead, the chief executive of Dublin City Council is chosen through a Public Appointments Service recruitment process, and isn’t accountable to voters.
By law, the appointment of the chief executive is a “reserved function”, meaning that it’s something councillors decide. But councillors say that in reality they have little choice but to give the appointment the nod.
Chief executive Owen Keegan is due to step down this year. His replacement has not yet been chosen but councillors expect it to be the chief executive of another local authority.
If they are short people today on public jobs there is only three vacancies hardy massive!.. maybe ask them why?
Hear hear. Only 3 jobs advertised on the Dublin city.ie website.
The whole damn system is broken.
So many people on the social welfare. Maybe they should do 20 h a week for their social payments.
Like Ted said, they’re only advertising three jobs at present. Same on the DCC website’s careers section. Hardly trying. Or just looking for an excuse to increase existing employees’ wages?
Why don’t they make it easier on the website to apply then!? You should be able to just upload your resume but you can’t even do that! I’ve been trying to apply for jobs in the council for ages now but I can’t send my resume! It’s ridiculous!
But you don’t apply for a job with any local authority by simply sending your C.V. in. That’s not the form that the application process takes, and that is not at all uncommon – lots of employers now require potential candidates to fill in a template that seeks specific information tailored to a particular post. Why would an employer trawl through your C.V. for evidence of your suitability rather than seeking the information most valuable and germane to the role?
I would love to work for the council gardening department but I am not getting a chance. I have applied.
‘Carruthers said local authorities still can’t match the private sector on this.
“We reached an interim agreement with the local authority sector last June for blended working, where people could engage in remote work and on a case-by-case basis, but there is definitely less flexibility in the public sector as in the private sector,” he said.’
This is bullshit. Pretty much the whole of the civil service – line departments and agencies – are offering blended working to the vast majority of employees, certainly the admin/office-based staff. Usually a minimum of two days WFH, more often three days. Dublin City Council could be doing the same but there is a big reluctance from management to trust their staff with WFH, despite it working in the rest of the civil service. (And yes, obviously, frontline staff like parks, litter, parking enforcement, etc., can’t WFH – but admin, finance, I.T., policy, etc., clearly can!)
I’m looking for part time work.
If the jobs are not advertised, how do they expect to recruit? Perhaps they have been so used to “gifting” jobs to the well connected that they don’t know how to run a recruitment campaign.
Advertise the jobs and offer full and part time directly employed permanent positions. How many job are in fact permanent, direct employment and how many are precarious short term and/or agency contracts?
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