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Public service and the public sector

Is it too much to expect a very well paid public sector employee in charge of 15,000 people to devote herself exclusively to one job?

It should not be, and yet once again a high-profile public servant has opted to take up a second job as a non-executive director with a private firm.

Sue Bruce, the chief executive of Edinburgh City Council, who commands an annual salary of £158,533, has accepted the role with energy company SSE worth £57,000 a year, with the proviso that some of her fee be donated to charities that operate within or benefit the city of Edinburgh.

Ms Bruce deserves credit for giving away some of her extra pay. Perhaps she has taken note of the storm of protest that followed the news last summer that Scottish Enterprise chief executive Lena Wilson was taking up a directorship with safety services firm Intertek worth £55,000, on top of a £200,000 salary.

Ms Bruce will certainly have talents and expertise which will be of value to SSE, some of which were spelled out yesterday by SSE chairman, Lord Smith of Kelvin, and there is no suggestion of a specific conflict of interest caused by her taking on the role.

That is not to say, however, that a conflict of interest could not arise in future. Edinburgh council taxpayers, meanwhile, are unlikely to be impressed that this well-remunerated official, already being paid almost six times the average full-time earnings, intends to take a second job.

Most employers expect their staff to attend to their contractual duties within core hours. Ms Bruce's commitment to SSE is expected to require on average 1.5 days of her time per month.

Will she be leaving her desk at the council during normal working hours to attend meetings and events with her new firm? If so, does she intend to relinquish a portion of her taxpayer-funded salary?

No doubt Ms Bruce already works well over her contractual hours in the service of Edinburgh City Council, but that is hardly unusual -– most people work more hours than they are paid for. Is that enough to justify such a move? At a time of budget constraints requiring innovative thinking and inspiring leadership in all local authorities, can it really be appropriate for chief executives to have more than one professional focus?

As Unison's John Stevenson makes clear, Edinburgh Council employees are unlikely to cheer Ms Bruce's new role when they are struggling with large workloads, not to mention low pay.

Commendable though it is that Ms Bruce is donating some of her fee to charity, it is not enough. Taxpayers and council employees alike have a right to expect their public sector leaders to devote themselves exclusively to one job.

It is time for publicly funded organisations to start stipulating in their terms of employment that senior executives may not take up private outside posts alongside the jobs they are paid so well to do.

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