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An opportunity for expansionist units
#21
Milton Wrote:I spent five years of my field career in such establishments and witnessed many cosy chats between the county DC archaeologist and the managers of the field section discussing particular projects (all based within the same building) . As a consultant I know clients who dislike this set-up
I am certainly aware of clients that are unhappy about dealing with in-house council field units, but I cannot agree with your first statement. While this is true of some council units, as I found when working in one area of the country for an external unit, it is definitely not the case with others. One council unit I worked for was constantly at loggerheads with the curatorial staff in the same council, who appeared to treat it much less well than they did even the dodgier private units. This went as far as the curators leaving the council unit off the list of units that had worked in the county, or, in one memorable case, scrawling obscenities next to the name of the unit on a list that went to a client.

Quote:Although county units do not have a monopoly of local work their lower overheads makes for unfair competition.
What lower overheads? In my experience, council units have higher overheads because they have to contribute to the overall council admin budget, among other things.

Quote:At my old Council place of work the useless or disruptive were kept hanging around, being more useless and generally soaking up overheads.
So how does this contribute to the lower overheads of the council unit that you mentioned before? It sounds more like it would increase their overheads.

Quote:archaeology, in the big scheme of things, isn't a service for the community; it serves those practising it and has an intellectual fringe benefit for that narrow band of the public who express an interest in it.
I'm not convinced that there is only a narrow band of the public that is interested in archaeology. If this is the case, how do you explain the enduring popularity of programmes such as Time Team? It would not still be on the air if it were not a commercial success. The key here is not that archaeology is only of limited interest, but that it needs to be taken to the interested members of the public and promoted. If they are made aware of the work that is being done, they are likely to become more interested in archaeology in general. This leads in to the question of whether archaeology is a service for the community or not. If it is not, then why do we do it and why do developers have to pay for it? For that matter, why do councils have curatorial staff? If archaeology is not a service for the community then the council should not be involved in it in any way, manner or form. As such, there should be no council organisations dedicated to it at any level. Leave it to those that are interested in it to have a go when they can be bothered and remove it from the development agenda. After all, why should developers pay for something that is of no real benefit to the community either?

Quote:There is little evidence to suggest that those companies which operate fully in the private sector are any worse at producing good output than anyone else. A fair bit of poor product was turned out by my Council unit, partly (and this is just my personal opinion) because of the blase attitude of the staff, who knew that no matter what they churned out they knew their chances of getting the boot was pretty minimal.
I have seen poor product from both council and private companies. There is little correlation between the quality of the work done and the ties or lack thereof to the council.

Quote:Private companies have to compete with each other, and there is a bigger onus on delivering good quality reports to win back repeat business from clients.
In my experience very few clients are interested in good quality reports. They are predominantly interested in cheap reports that are good enough to get accepted by the curator. Getting the job done cheaply and with a minimum of fuss will get you repeat business, not producing a brilliant report that eloquently discusses the site's importance in the field of penis sheath typologies and places the site in its global context.

Quote:Competition is good for all as people try harder.
It also leads to greater exploitation of staff as the units cut corners to meet their target budgets by reducing wages, etc., and staff wind up having to work evenings and weekends for free to meet their deadlines or they get sacked despite the fact that the unrealistic deadlines were given to them by the owners of the company.

Quote:If a private company is rubbish at what they do; they fail and go under.
Depends how you define rubbish. If you mean that they are too expensive and not willing to bend over backwards for the client then I agree.
'Reality,' sa molesworth 2, 'is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder.'
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#22
Dinosaur Wrote:Invisible - is there actually any evidence that the 'mega units' don't grab all the small jobs they can?
My experience of the biggest units is that they price themselves out of the smaller jobs. When I was working as a consultant (sorry, it was a phase I was going through:I), I often got them to quote but they just could not compete on price with smaller units for the smaller jobs. They only really came into their own on larger projects.
'Reality,' sa molesworth 2, 'is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder.'
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#23
I'll bow to your greater knowldge, just working off my knowledge of their end product which does seem to include a fair proportion of small watching brief reports etc. However, off their own fiefdoms in southern England they don't even seem to be very good at getting the big 6 and 7 figure jobs - good news for us minnows elsewhere :face-approve:

I have direct recent knowledge of two reputedly hived-off county units who seem to be able to just pop in and use their local HER without any record or bill - that's quite a useful 'subsidy' in my book considering how much the rest of us have to pay - and in one case I personally have found the HER relatively unhelpful on a number of occasions because I'm not from their 'local' unit
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#24
well said odin

while commercial archaeology may have functioned over x-amount of years, the many topics discussed here in this forum are testament to the situation being far from desirable.

in particular the opportunities to create a progressive profession for the future have been almost entirely wasted, 9/10 directly because of competitive tendering.

i am glad at least somebody can see beyond the end of their trowel, pen, or nose

@Milton : re FIU ; i refer to the attitude that is demonstrated towards expertise. i regard myself as a highly trained and experienced professional - perhaps you do not...
(its not front line - we can lose it, no one will notice).
Are you seriously suggesting that competitive tendering will improve the reliability and objectivity of forensic crime investigation?
Anyway i am glad you seem to share my concern (Forensic being dead important and all) - i expect you will be protesting vocaly about then?

(oh welcome BTW)
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#25
GnomeKing Wrote:while commercial archaeology may have functioned over x-amount of years, the many topics discussed here in this forum are testament to the situation being far from desirable.

in particular the opportunities to create a progressive profession for the future have been almost entirely wasted, 9/10 directly because of competitive tendering.

(oh welcome BTW)


I don't think it's competative tendering in itself that is the problem, it's the varying nature of the organisations working within a framework of competative tendering that is. Organisation A might be an entirely independent commercial unit, B a council owned or affiliated company, C a company forming part of a 'charity', D a one man band working out of a back bedroom. Granted they might not all be tending for the same sort of jobs, but their varying running costs/overheads/organisation mean that they are quite hard to compare. As a result there is the potential for a lot of instability as the predictability of prices is all over the place - hence the difficulties in providing a 'progressive profession'.

In a sense everything you buy is a process of competative tendering - don't like the price of organic ethically sourced apples in the local wholefood shop? Go the supermarket. Don't want to pay top prices for new designer clothes? Go to Oxfam. The thing I think would make a difference is more easy comparison, and privatising council owned units is potentially one way of that happening, but it still needs a greater sense of ethical and honourable treatment by employers and managers and less taking advantage of convenient but potentially dodgy set-ups (curator and contractor in same building for example, but it sounds like in some cases that is as much of a hinderance as a help). How that is imposed is anyone's guess!
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#26
Odinn,

Thanks for your response.

I fully agree that the set-up for county units varies from county to county, both in terms of their political and financial relationships with their own councils. Evidently our experiences of local authority archaeology are very different, and obviously I can only comment on my own experience, and those of my colleagues who were also ex-local authority at some point or other.


'I am certainly aware of clients that are unhappy about dealing with in-house council field units. While this is true of some council units, as I found when working in one area of the country for an external unit, it is definitely not the case with others. One council unit I worked for was constantly at loggerheads with the curatorial staff in the same council, who appeared to treat it much less well than they did even the dodgier private units. This went as far as the curators leaving the council unit off the list of units that had worked in the county, or, in one memorable case, scrawling obscenities next to the name of the unit on a list that went to a client.'


Taking this point about relationship between curator and unit, the examples in my region (and I’m referring to three local authorities) are all broadly similar i.e. ‘cosy’ chats, co-habiting in the same building, examples of curators recommending services provided by the unit and a poor level of review by the curator of the unit’s written outputs. The curators are guilty of practising one or more of these infringements of best practice. Incidentally, it also doesn’t help when people in the curatorial sections are married, or in relationships with, staff who work in the field sections.



'What lower overheads? In my experience, council units have higher overheads because they have to contribute to the overall council admin budget, among other things.'



In terms of funding, I can give first hand experience of my own county of how the unit is effectively subsidised by the council:
  • Preferential rates of rent for accommodation i.e. below the private sector market value for the offices they occupy;
  • Free IT support as part of the Council system;
  • Paid Bank holidays;
  • Paid sick leave;
  • The unit could produce a deficit at the end of every year (and for a period of many years they more often than not did) and the Council would bail them out, just so long as the loss was within ‘acceptable limits’.
I know that the rental and IT points above are also provided to the local unit of an adjacent county, with possibly the bill for electricity and water picked up on the Council tab too.

To be fair the situation in my own county might have changed since I left local government some years ago, but the unit principal always was very guarded about telling people about how much the Council subsidised the field section, even to the extent of being un-cooperative with his own senior Council staff about the same issues, as they weren’t clear of the situation either!



'Although the field sections are chiefly self-funding, the subsidies do make a difference to their charging rates, and therefore assist competitiveness against private companies who have to factor in all the usual overheads into their fees.

So how does this contribute to the lower overheads of the council unit that you mentioned before? It sounds more like it would increase their overheads.'




If the Councils are prepared to bail out the unit every year owing to loss-makers, then the incentive to let go off unproductive staff is reduced.


'I'm not convinced that there is only a narrow band of the public that is interested in archaeology. If this is the case, how do you explain the enduring popularity of programmes such as Time Team? It would not still be on the air if it were not a commercial success. The key here is not that archaeology is only of limited interest, but that it needs to be taken to the interested members of the public and promoted. If they are made aware of the work that is being done, they are likely to become more interested in archaeology in general. This leads in to the question of whether archaeology is a service for the community or not. If it is not, then why do we do it and why do developers have to pay for it? For that matter, why do councils have curatorial staff? If archaeology is not a service for the community then the council should not be involved in it in any way, manner or form. As such, there should be no council organisations dedicated to it at any level. Leave it to those that are interested in it to have a go when they can be bothered and remove it from the development agenda. After all, why should developers pay for something that is of no real benefit to the community either?'




I wasn’t suggesting that archaeology should not be part of local authority services. That would run counter to my own interests for a start, as most of the work that I do is generated by local authority policy and planning requirements. I was merely pointing out that most people aren’t that interested in what we do, despite the healthy figures that Time Team gets (whatever they are, but I’ll assume they’re healthy). Assuming for one moment that TT is an accurate barometer of the nation’s interest in archaeology that still leaves the rest of the nation that doesn’t watch it. Which is a lot of people.




'I have seen poor product from both council and private companies. There is little correlation between the quality of the work done and the ties or lack thereof to the council.'



I fully agree with you. That’s my experience too. The onus is on curators not to accept average products and make sure that WSI are of a higher quality than at present, and that the field unit in question are held to their commitment to fulfill those terms. Some of the meaningless generic WSI that curator’s accept from units, both county and private, do them little credit. If the curators are accepting poor product, then that is their fault and not the fault of the companies who produce them.



'In my experience very few clients are interested in good quality reports. They are predominantly interested in cheap reports that are good enough to get accepted by the curator. Getting the job done cheaply and with a minimum of fuss will get you repeat business, not producing a brilliant report that eloquently discusses the site's importance in the field of penis sheath typologies and places the site in its global context.

It also leads to greater exploitation of staff as the units cut corners to meet their target budgets by reducing wages, etc., and staff wind up having to work evenings and weekends for free to meet their deadlines or they get sacked despite the fact that the unrealistic deadlines were given to them by the owners of the company.'




If companies are exploiting staff then the staff are free to go and work for someone else who will value them more highly. Ultimately the company will lose out from losing their skills and experience and will be less likely to function well without them. Voting with your feet is the most effective way of ensuring better working conditions all round. I’ve had to work evenings and weekends for the same reasons, both as a field archaeologist (this was less common) and as a consultant (more commonly). I accept that a certain amount of additional work is required beyond what you’re paid to do. This is what the economy is like these days. People increasingly have to work outside of their comfort zones. I’d love to do my 37.50 hours a week and stop working on the dot, but that’s just not a reality. I also accept that doing additional work is stretching me, and to an extent that is good, as it assists my professional development and stops me from developing too much of a comfort zone.

GnomeKing – In summary I believe the government’s role should be a minimal one, and that their chief responsibilities should include internal security (security services, police and their various support services). That is why the dismantling of the FIU is a disgrace.

I’m sure you are experienced, intelligent and very good at your job. I just don’t think you should be paid for what you do by local or central government unless your role is a curatorial one.

In your previous posts you seemed to make the inferences that county units set the standard for archaeological practice throughout the country. I hope I’ve provided an alternative perspective.

Red Earth – well said.
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#27
Having worked in IT for a council with its own archaeology unit, I can make the following observations on the setup there (may not be the same elsewhere, admittedly):

IT support in my council was never free for any department. There were internal recharging systems and a premium added to newly-purchased equipment that paid for ongoing support. Not that this really applied to the archaeologists. The joke was that no old PCs or printers ever left the Council in working condition, because Archaeology usually ended up with cast-offs from the rest of the council as that's all they could afford. For some reason, they preferred to spend their (limited) budgets on that weird archaeology stuff. Go figure.

Paid Bank Holidays and sick leave are standard for council staff. That's one of the reasons that archaeologists choose to stay with those units and not go elsewhere. The problem isn't good employment conditions in councils, it's the poor conditions elsewhere. "Criticisms" of council archaeology unit employment conditions, make them sound pretty attractive as employers. Councils tend to be heavily unionised and have managed to cling to decent terms and conditions. Not something that the commercial arena has managed for itself sadly.

Producing a deficit - This is almost necessary for a council department. Certainly if my department made a profit, then our budget was cut by that amount the following year on the grounds that we were clearly overcharging for our services. Council departments are (or were back then) expected to break even. If loss could be accounted for, then it would be tolerated to a certain level but ultimately, profit and loss were both equally bad.

Council units aren't going to operate the same way as commercial units because they aren't run the same way. I don't think either is inherently better or worse - they're just different.
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#28
Milton Wrote:Taking this point about relationship between curator and unit, the examples in my region (and I’m referring to three local authorities) are all broadly similar i.e. ‘cosy’ chats, co-habiting in the same building, examples of curators recommending services provided by the unit and a poor level of review by the curator of the unit’s written outputs. The curators are guilty of practising one or more of these infringements of best practice. Incidentally, it also doesn’t help when people in the curatorial sections are married, or in relationships with, staff who work in the field sections.
I do agree that all review should be rigorous and even-handed. It's just that I have seen set-ups where council units both benefited and were disadvantaged by the set-up and felt the need to raise that issue to in the interest of balance. It really comes down to the individuals involved. Where they are deficient in best practice then they should be held to account, whichever way they have erred.

Quote:In terms of funding, I can give first hand experience of my own county of how the unit is effectively subsidised by the council:

  • Preferential rates of rent for accommodation i.e. below the private sector market value for the offices they occupy;
  • Free IT support as part of the Council system;
  • Paid Bank holidays;
  • Paid sick leave;
  • The unit could produce a deficit at the end of every year (and for a period of many years they more often than not did) and the Council would bail them out, just so long as the loss was within ‘acceptable limits’.
I know that the rental and IT points above are also provided to the local unit of an adjacent county, with possibly the bill for electricity and water picked up on the Council tab too.

I'm not sure about the rates for accommodation given to the council units I have worked for, but the accommodation itself was hardly much better than a portakabin in most cases so it had better have been cheap. In all cases it was buildings that the council had been unable to sell off and were not interested in maintaining so the units were given them. IT support was paid for and, as Kel wrote, the units generally got the cast-offs from other departments, unless a project actually stumped up the cash specifically for certain equipment and/or software. Paid bank holidays (or equivalent) are your legal right. If your unit is not giving you bank holidays or equivalent as paid leave then they are in breach of the law. They can tell you when to take the leave but they cannot take away your right to 28 days' annual leave per year (for full-time staff). Regarding sick leave, all of the private companies I have worked for have given paid sick leave. Paid sick leave is best practice and is not the sole prerogative of a council unit. Kel has addressed the issue of deficits. It's true that council units can often have deficits in successive years but that situation leads to uncomfortable talks with councillors and reviews of staffing needs. Council units do lay people off (I have been through that process several times) but it is a pain to do so they try to find ways not to have to, such as redeploying people to other parts of the council instead. This last point is probably your best point about advantages for council units, but the councils I worked for still took their cut from the unit at every possible stage, including charging for admin and IT support.


Quote:'Although the field sections are chiefly self-funding, the subsidies do make a difference to their charging rates, and therefore assist competitiveness against private companies who have to factor in all the usual overheads into their fees.
The charging rates I have seen from council units are generally on a par with those of private units, so those council units must be raking the cash in. I have spent a lot of time over the past few years organising sites and getting tenders for them. Charge-out rates on all sides are roughly even with smaller units generally charging less while larger units charge more (please note: broad generalisation at work here). Council units seem to be no cheaper than the equivalent private unit based on my experience.

Quote:If the Councils are prepared to bail out the unit every year owing to loss-makers, then the incentive to let go off unproductive staff is reduced.
The incentive to get rid of the feckless, idle, work-shy fops and mere incompetents around the unit is still there, because such people negatively affect morale and lead to poorer productivity on all fronts. Managers in council units want efficient digging and reporting machines just as much as managers in private units. It's not the incentive that is the problem. Rather it is the hoops that you have to jump through to get rid of people. That said, it does happen and, as I mentioned earlier, I have seen it happen several times.

Quote:I wasn’t suggesting that archaeology should not be part of local authority services. That would run counter to my own interests for a start, as most of the work that I do is generated by local authority policy and planning requirements. I was merely pointing out that most people aren’t that interested in what we do, despite the healthy figures that Time Team gets (whatever they are, but I’ll assume they’re healthy). Assuming for one moment that TT is an accurate barometer of the nation’s interest in archaeology that still leaves the rest of the nation that doesn’t watch it. Which is a lot of people.
TT's viewing figures are around the 1.5 to 2 million mark if the Vikings special (1.7 million viewers) is anything to judge by. Other heritage programmes that I can find data for pull in up to 5 million viewers. That is a fairly significant percentage of the population that can be bothered to sit down and watch a TV programme. I have a strong interest in archaeology but I generally do not watch such programmes unless trying to spot people I know. How many more people could we add to the interested bracket that do not watch the programmes but indulge their interest by visiting sites or museums instead? I agree that *most* people probably are fairly ambivalent towards archaeology, but there is a significant percentage that are interested.

Quote:The onus is on curators not to accept average products and make sure that WSI are of a higher quality than at present, and that the field unit in question are held to their commitment to fulfill those terms. Some of the meaningless generic WSI that curator’s accept from units, both county and private, do them little credit. If the curators are accepting poor product, then that is their fault and not the fault of the companies who produce them.
Agreed.

Quote:If companies are exploiting staff then the staff are free to go and work for someone else who will value them more highly. Ultimately the company will lose out from losing their skills and experience and will be less likely to function well without them. Voting with your feet is the most effective way of ensuring better working conditions all round. I’ve had to work evenings and weekends for the same reasons, both as a field archaeologist (this was less common) and as a consultant (more commonly). I accept that a certain amount of additional work is required beyond what you’re paid to do. This is what the economy is like these days. People increasingly have to work outside of their comfort zones. I’d love to do my 37.50 hours a week and stop working on the dot, but that’s just not a reality. I also accept that doing additional work is stretching me, and to an extent that is good, as it assists my professional development and stops me from developing too much of a comfort zone.
Staff are free to move around in the good times, but look at the employment situation now. Who is going to be easily able to move just because their current employer is a shit? I'm not sure what you mean by 'comfort zone'. It sounds like you are talking about work-life balance. If people are being forced to work more than their contracted hours then that is wrong unless they have signed up to a contract that says they should. Otherwise it is exploitation of the workers once more. As a consultant, my contract stipulated that I would have to put in the hours to get the job done as and when needed. I got paid a good wage on that understanding. As a member of a field unit my contract stated my working hours and mentioned nothing about putting in extra hours as needed to meet deadlines. The contractual understanding was that I did my hours and that was it, and I got paid appropriately. As it turned out, I put in a lot of extra hours because I cared about my job. None of those extra hours actually took me outside my comfort zone. They were all spent doing the usual jobs and all they did was exhaust me and put me into a situation where all I did with my life was eat, sleep and work. Where I did get out of my comfort zone was in dealing with new tasks, with which I was unfamiliar, and that could occur at any time. Trying new tasks stretched and developed me, but working longer hours did not.
'Reality,' sa molesworth 2, 'is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder.'
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#29
Ah yes - the office accommodation, I'd forgotten that. Sagging ceilings, damp portacabins, mouldy carpets... There was a reason why it was cheap. The council couldn't have rented it to any commercial enterprise.
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#30
Disused school buildings, mostly pre-fabs, seem to have been a recurrent theme with county units I've worked for....but still subsidised premises. Presumably museum and university units also benefit from similar subsidisation however much they may deny it - plus of course Uni units do tend to get work for eg running their Uni training digs?...and access to all those shiny lab facilities and specialists and willing students - do they really get charged the same for those as the rest of us?
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