On your bike!


Kenneth Roy on the spoof-like quality of a Scottish quango’s cycle to work scheme

If I were to risk cycling to work every morning along the charming byways of Ayrshire, I would not expect my employer, assuming I had one, to put this madcap enterprise out to contract. If I arrived in one piece, I would be left to make my own arrangements to chain the bike somewhere and hope for the best, as one does in John Finnie Street. But then I remind myself that I was not born with a silver spoke in my wheel. Not for me the ultimate good fortune to work for NHS Education for Scotland.     
     This is the organisation (regular readers will need no reminding) which, in 2008-09, paid its medical director a salary of £185,000 for doing a part-time job and, in 2009-10, when he went full-time, paid him £235,000. This is the organisation which sent 11 members of its staff on a four-day jaunt to Malaga to participate in such seminars as the use of Twitter in medical education. When SR, two weeks ago, disclosed the wacky ways of NHS Education for Scotland – NES, as it styles itself – this parable of our times made front-page news in the national press the following morning and provoked a parliamentary question to the first minister from the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
     At that tricky point, had I been advising the people who manage NES, and acutely mindful of the possibility that it might be top of the heap in any bonfire of the Scottish quangos, I would have counselled extreme caution and a low profile, in the hope of avoiding further unwelcome exposure. Instead, NES seems to relish digging an even bigger hole for itself.
     A hole in the road, as it happens.

A ‘service’ must be provided, a service to be financed by the public through the Scottish Government’s grant-in-aid.

     Mr Swinney has imposed a pay freeze in the Scottish public sector. Wherever you look, there are people who wonder whether, the Christmas after the one approaching, they will be in paid employment of any kind. In the midst of this national alarm and despondency, there exists a parallel universe. It is to be found in Haymarket Terrace, Edinburgh, the headquarters of NHS Education for Scotland, where the sun shines and all is well with the world and there would be muffins for tea if muffins were not so bad for you.
     A vigilant reader alerted by our earlier coverage has spotted, among the public contracts going out to tender this month, a remarkable scheme being promoted by NES. Its aim, it seems, is to encourage its workers to forsake the private car in favour of the bicycle. ‘NHS Education for Scotland is committed to promoting physical activity as a healthy way of life for staff,’ enthuses the offical bumph. A commendable ideal, even if the timing of the initiative, at the start of what threatens to be another hard winter, may strike the faint-hearted among us as slightly less than propitious.
     No matter: who are we to disparage a scheme combining personal fitness with a hardy environmental friendliness?
     But there is a problem. With this organisation, there often is a problem. In these challenging times, exhortation costs nothing – except the few minutes of staff time it would require to dash off a paragraph in some staff e-newsletter recommending the use of the bicycle for travel to work. No doubt a humble shed could be provided to store them at the other end.
     But the NES initiative goes far beyond exhortation. It is not enough that employees should be encouraged to go to work on a bike. A ‘service’ must be provided, a service to be financed by the public through the Scottish Government’s grant-in-aid.

The commercial possibilities are fairly considerable: NES has more than 600 employees.

     NES is currently inviting ‘expressions of interest’ for the provision of this service. A potential ‘service operator’ is expected to have at his disposal ‘a national network of participating partner bike stores with at least two partner stores’ in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness. The service operator must run a scheme that ‘minimises administrative duties for NES and provides guidance and resources where appropriate’ and must make promotional material available for advertising the scheme. In return, NES will pay the operator £1,000 (inc VAT) for each application it receives. At the end of the hire period – a year – the operator will have the right to take ownership of the bikes and sell them to any NES employees who want to buy them. I know that some of this has a spoof-like quality. Unfortunately, it ain’t no spoof.
     How many NES employees will apply? NES states in its tender brief that ‘as we do not have any benchmark data, it is not possible at this time to quantity what the uptake will be’. But the commercial possibilities are fairly considerable: NES has more than 600 employees.
     The budget allocated for this extraordinary scheme has not been disclosed. It must be more than £10,000, the threshold figure at which public tenders appear on official websites. It may be considerably more. But whatever it is, it is too much. At a time when public spending is being squeezed as never before, when so many public sector jobs are on the line, it sends all the wrong signals.
As the SR reader observed in his covering note: ‘Where is the sensitivity, common sense or oversight in this organisation?’
     But, as we will reveal shortly, the hole NHS Education for Scotland is digging for itself goes deeper still.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.