When I interviewed Val Shawcross, London’s deputy mayor for transport, last month one of the topics we covered was the scaling down of Transport for London’s management structure so that front line staff could be entrusted with more responsibility and those at the top had a better idea of what was happening.
She told me:
“One of the things I notice is there’s an unusually dense layer of management in TfL, there’s about 12 layers between the guy at the top and the most junior person in the organisation.”
“It’s probably more than most public organisations I can think of, and you also notice that the span of control for some of the managers is quite narrow.
“So I think some of the structural stuff, and the senior managers there kind of know this and agree with this, does need modernising a bit.
“And part of that will be about empowering people do their jobs wherever they are within it, because if you’re over managed it’s disempowering.
“You start to think ‘I don’t have to worry too much because there’s going to be 6 people above me checking this’.
“Actually what you want in this day and age is everybody to do their job to maximum responsibility and skill and sense of agency and empowerment and control. In this modern age people are fantastically well educated, we’ve got great technologies, we should be about empowering people.
“So there’s some cultural and structural changes to make over time that will make it a better place to work.
“We’ve had to get on quite quickly with looking at middle management, because this is an imperative for the business plan to make sure we are an efficiently run organisation.
“There are a few people who are going on voluntary severance, but that’s not unusual in the public sector. You do need to shape the organisation.”
Today LBC has revealed more detail on the pay-offs people are getting, prompting Tory MP Chris Philp to rush onto the airwaves and denounce them as “a catastrophic waste of public money”.
But Mr Philp, clearly eager to attack new Mayor Sadiq Khan, might have been better off pausing and thinking about why so many senior and, in some cases, superfluous managers remain in the organisation after eight years of Boris Johnson’s leadership.
The simple truth is that despite initial campaign pledges to oust Sir Peter Hendy as transport commissioner, Boris never really took control or shaped TfL and largely let its top tiers to do their own thing.
With fare increases guaranteed, there was never much need for restraint within the organisation which is why senior executives felt free to dine in fancy restaurants at public expense, run up hideously large mobile bills and charge the taxpayer for private medical insurance which covered not just them, but their partners and adult offspring too.
Making rapid changes in any organisation inevitably means paying people to leave, either through redundancy or a simple negotiated severance package.
The only alternative is to wait, sometimes for years, for people you want to get rid off to leave of their own accord. But that often sees the total cost to the taxpayer far exceed whatever inducement you might have offered to be rid of them early.
Despite the partisan outrage, there’s nothing wrong in Sadiq and Val paying TfL managers to leave provided they ensure that the same people don’t end up coming back in consultancy roles, are rehired a few months down the line or, as happened in the Met, get replaced by expensive temps.
The fact that TfL’s accounts are routinely published means we’ll easily be able to monitor that and, if deserved, give the Mayor a hard time should we have evidence that paying off people now doesn’t save money down the line.
But if, in the meantime, Mr Philp wants to talk about “catastrophic” wastes of TfL cash, I know some people who’d like to talk to him about a cable car and a garden bridge.