Chief executive of Tower Hamlets Council, Kevan Collins, faced with the prospect of £50 million worth of cuts over the next three years, spent a week in disguise, working at the front line of public service provision, in order to learn more about how authority money was being spent. The results were shown last night on Channel 4’s ‘Undercover Boss’.
Speaking before he began the experiment, Collins said: “I hope that by going undercover I’m going to understand the organisation better, I’m going to get closer to our staff, and I’m going to be able to return with answers how we can do our job better [and] support those who deliver right at the front line in this council.”
As well as adopting the name ‘Colin’ for his secret mission, during which he claimed to be an unemployed catering working from Blackpool sampling council work for the film, he had his hair cut, stopped shaving his beard and wore a beanie hat.
“Doing it this way, you’re seeing it as it is, rather than as people want you to see it,” he said. “Because I think that the minute that people know that you’re a senior manager, or you’re the chief executive, they just put on a different kind of show.”
After revealing his true identity to surprised staff, none of whom had guessed who he really was, Collins paid tribute to their work and offered several of them opportunities to further influence council policy.
The former local primary school teacher, who was appointed head of the council last autumn, said that the experience had made him ‘proud’ of his job and those working with him.
“I’m really happy on all sorts of levels that I’ve done this, [and] incredibly grateful for how generous all the people were that worked with me. We’re lucky: we have some really great people that work for us.”
He praised the work of Meals on Wheels provider Chris, with whom he spent a morning delivering food. Describing the service as a ‘lifeline’ for its users, he said: “Going out with Meals on Wheels is really good for me because it reminds you that when you are looking for efficiencies – when you are making them – there is a cost. A real cost.”
Staff member Malachi at the borough’s Housing and Homelessness Office was also the focus of positive attention for his excellent people skills and ‘outstanding’ work ethic. Pest Control Officer Tim showed such talent at explaining his work that he has since been asked to take on an apprentice and Market Officer Shazz also came in for positive attention.
But some services seemed to show more obvious room for cuts. After working with Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officers, whose approach to dealing with antisocial youth he praised, Collins questioned some of the officers’ more trivial duties.
“Fining someone for putting cigarette ends down the drain? Is that a good use of our time? I can see the real need for the service, but we don’t seem at the moment to be doing it in a way that I can quite understand the decisions we’ve made.”
Critic Jonathan Guthrie of the Financial Times dubbed the progamme ‘Undercover Fluff’ for what he saw as its failure to take a more critical approach to Collins’ work.
However, Guthrie also praised the council workers featured in the film, and applauded Collins’ attitude toward efficiency measures, describing it as ‘classic New Labour.’
The documentary is available to watch online at the Channel Four website, here.