Employer profile: Kent County Council

Affectionately known as the garden of England, Kent connects London to the south coast of the country. The landscape of this sprawling home county varies from meadows, orchards and valleys to the White Cliffs of Dover and long, sandy beaches.

Its local authority, Kent County Council, has a workforce as varied as the county in which it operates, with 46,000 staff in a diverse range of locations. Reward adviser Jane Vivier says: “There are only two jobs I can think of that you can’t have [within] Kent County Council: a train driver and an astronaut. Staff are located across the county. Some are based in schools, some in offices, and some are even based in country parks.”

This wide geographical spread of staff means it is a major challenge for the council to provide and communicate perks, but its benefits team has made it a key objective to deliver a scheme that is appreciated by all employees. “The council has been praised for a high level of service, value for money and performance. This is because of the people who work here and it is really nice to add value to their salaries through the benefits we can give them,” says Vivier.

To better meet those aims, the council has revamped its benefits offering over the past year. In October 2007, it replaced its previous voluntary benefits scheme, which comprised approximately 100 discounts, with a plan called KentRewards for which the council won an Employee Benefits Award last month. Vivier says the aim was to consolidate all perks onto one platform and help the council gain more from its benefits spend by increasing the number of discounts available to staff.

The new plan includes a range of salary-sacrifice benefits such as a cycle-to-work scheme, childcare vouchers and mobile phones, as well as discounts from around 2,000 retailers, which is all provided through one online portal.

When staff buy goods and services online, they can opt to either receive a discount on their purchase or get cash back, which they can transfer to their personal bank accounts.

Also included in the KentRewards scheme is ValuePlus, which entitles staff to a range of discounts at more than 200 local retail outlets. These do not qualify for the cash-back option, however.

Vivier and her team administer the scheme internally. “It has been constantly evolving. We have been able to do things to it and add to it since October. There is something on it for everybody,” she says.

Like any public sector organisation, the council’s benefits provision is subject to tight budgetary control. But due to savings on national insurance contributions gained by offering some benefits through salary sacrifice, it is able to provide its voluntary benefits scheme to staff on a cost-neutral basis.

CommunicationVivier says the scheme enables the council to offer staff choice but without the cost and administration of a full flexible-benefits scheme. “We do not have flexible benefits in place because few of our employees would have anything meaningful to flex. I think voluntary benefits with salary sacrifice allow us to be more flexible than if we had flex.”

But communicating the scheme is a challenge for Vivier and her team. “We are so vast and diverse that, seven months after the launch, there are still people in Kent who haven’t got the message,” she says.

Undaunted, Vivier is gradually pushing the message out to staff in Kent’s far-flung reaches. Because a number of employees do not have access to computers or the internet at work, a large part of promoting the scheme is through roadshows and by word of mouth.

Vivier herself makes three or four visits to the council’s various sites each week to show staff how to use the reward platform and explain how they can save money by using the benefits.

“It is a gradual process, but we are getting there. Word of mouth is fantastic and we are constantly out there pushing the message so that KentRewards is turning into a brand name that staff recognise,” she says.

So far, this approach appears to be paying off. After the new scheme was launched last October, Vivier sent word to the county’s 600 schools encouraging staff to take advantage of the benefits on offer. Although teaching staff have been able to use salary-sacrifice arrangements to gain tax breaks on some benefits since June 2006, Vivier set out to make sure they knew this option is available. So far, 450 schools have expressed an interest in signing staff up to salary sacrifice perks. But although this is a positive start, the council still has much work to do.

Communicating the organisation’s benefits package does not stop at the county borders, however, as the council is also using its reward platform to attract talented staff to Kent from other areas.

In May, Vivier travelled to Belfast to talk to newly-qualified teachers (NQTs) about the benefits of working for Kent County Council. “NQTs often get paid the same amount of money wherever they work. I tell them to come and work in Kent as opposed to anywhere else because of the benefits. If we can add extra value to their salary, that’s great, and if we can add value in monetary terms, that’s even better,” she says.

The council has been so impressed with the take up of KentRewards by its own workforce that it is now working with other public-sector organisations in the area to encourage them to implement a similar plan. For example, earlier this month, Vivier helped Kent Police implement a cycle-to-work scheme. Tunbridge Wells Borough Council also launched its own version of KentRewards, called ScreenSavers, last month, and Thanet District Council is poised to follow suit shortly. “I really believe in the product and I think it’s something that should be shared. Some smaller councils don’t have a benefits team, so I’m happy to help,” says Vivier.

Work-life balanceLooking ahead, the council aims to enhance its scheme further and communicate it more widely. Vivier says the authority’s existing work-life balance initiatives, such as enhanced maternity and paternity leave, holiday trading, part-time working and term-time working, will be added to the KentRewards platform and also communicated more effectively.

Last month, the council became one of the first large local authorities in Britain to offer financial education for employees in association with the Financial Services Authority (FSA). Staff have been invited to attend free financial education seminars run by the FSA and offered free booklets and CD-Roms on how to better manage their money. These seminars took place for staff in Maidstone last month and the council is investigating the possibility of rolling them out further.

The authority is also set to implement interactive total reward statements later this year. Staff will be able to access statements through the KentRewards platform and also receive them in a paper format and on CD-Rom. They will be encouraged to discuss them with their line managers.

With public-sector pay and pensions issues frequently hitting the national news headlines, even local authorities like Kent County Council which don’t bargain for pay on national terms, can have their work cut out to attract the best talent.

Vivier believes the council’s benefits scheme makes a difference in helping to attract and retain the right staff, to the council and to the county. “We are a very high-profile employer and the largest in Kent. The strategy for staff and the component parts of the reward strategy help us to keep our employees.” EBCareer profileJane Vivier has worked for Kent County Council for more than three years. She first joined its learning and development team on a temporary basis, before moving to a permanent position as reward adviser in its reward and employment strategy group.

Vivier has had a varied career. After graduating from the University of Reading with a geography degree, she managed cinemas for UCI and the Virgin Group from 1993 to 2000.

She then moved into retail as staff services manager for the London Eye from 2000 to 2001, before becoming a recruitment consultant with Huntress for three years immediately before she joined Kent County Council.

Vivier does not have any qualifications from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), but instead holds Prince2 Practitioner qualification in higher project management and is currently working towards a para-legal qualification in employment law from the University of Strathclyde.

She strongly believes in taking a personal approach towards staff and their benefits, and attends every one of the council’s benefits roadshows. She also regularly visits employees across the council’s 1,143 sites.

Vivier says staff often refer to her as “the KentRewards lady”, a title of which she is proud.

Kent County Council at a glance Kent County Council is a local government organisation with a workforce of approximately 46,000 people.

The council, currently controlled by the Conservatives, is responsible for education, adult education, highways, emergency planning, community planning and the environment in Kent.

District councils across the county are responsible for frontline tasks such as refuse collection and operate autonomously from the county council.

The county council’s strategic headquarters, including council chambers, are in Maidstone. Council staff also operate at 1,143 sites around Kent, including 600 schools and eight windmills. Its workforce is 80percent female, and 50percent of employees are aged 45 years and over.

Kent County Council has been awarded a four-star rating by the Audit Commission, which is the highest a local authority can achieve, based on its internal and external performance, cost-effectiveness and the level of service that it provides to the county.

At last month’s Employee Benefits Awards 2008, the council won the award for “Most effective use of a voluntary benefits plan” for its KentRewards scheme.

Discount scheme is a big attractionLiz Skinner, a debt recovery officer for Kent County Council, has worked for the authority for four years.

Her role involves collecting debts owed to the council and borough councils in Kent.

She particularly values the county council’s voluntary benefits scheme, and has used both KentRewards and the previous plan.

“I use the KentRewards system. I started off with a home computer initiative (HCI) package and got a laptop out of it.

“I have also been part of the Flexfone [mobile phone] scheme for the last two years and I sometimes use the rewards platform to buy theatre tickets,” she says.

As well as enjoying long-term benefits such as the council’s final salary pension scheme, Skinner has been able to obtain discounts on everyday items.

“I have taken advantage of more things than I would have bought normally because I know I will get a discount,” she says.

What are the benefits?Final salary defined benefit pension through the local government pension scheme. The employer contribution is about 20percent and employees are auto-enrolled when they join the council.

Free literature and seminars are provided in conjunction with the Financial Services Authority (FSA).

A wide range of voluntary benefits and salary sacrifice options are available on the KentRewards platform, provided by Asperity’s Rewards Gateway. These include discounts or cash-back options at more than 2,000 retailers, including travel companies, supermarkets and high-street stores. • Lump-sum allowance for staff who use a car to travel more than 2,500 miles a year on business. • A fuel allowance is provided if needed for business. • Performance-related pay scheme enabling staff to move up the pay scale if they achieve targets set for them throughout the year. • A help fund offers grants and loans to staff during times of financial hardship. This is funded through employee donations. • Private medical insurance (PMI) for senior staff. • Dental cover offered through voluntary benefits. • Employee support line through which employees can discuss their problems and be referred to a counsellor or the Citizen’s Advice Bureau if necessary. • A range of flexible working arrangements, such as flexible hours, part-time or term-time hours. • Between 24 and 30 days’ holiday as standard, plus eight bank holidays and one discretionary day off over Christmas. • Staff can buy or sell up to 10 days’ holiday a year.