Well, nothing like comparing two similar functions in public sector organisations to see how effectively our tax money is spent. Being new to this blog, thought I’d post my own experience. Here’s two similar roles in two public sector organisations – one Quango, one council.

  • Environmental Enforcement Officer with Local Council: £17,000 to £21,000 + council van
  • Environment Officer with Environment Agency: £24,287 to £31,591 + lease car (choice of large, medium or small) and phone (both available for personal use – surprisingly true)
  • Both similar perks and pensions

Having worked in both roles, can honestly say that Environment Enforcement Officers (local councils) have far greater and more complex workloads than Environment Officers, yet are either underpaid (or Environment Officers overpaid). Being in the private sector now, I’m leaning more towards Environment Officers with the EA being vastly overpaid for the workload and complexity (or lack thereof) compared to Environmental Enforcement Officers with the local councils.

That’s just one job role – many, many more whereby the EA seem to vastly overpay similarly qualified staff with similar levels of workload and workload complexity as equivalent staff in other government bodies. Perhaps a sign that Quango’s just don’t quiet work the same as the civil service when it comes to spending precious public money wisely.

And for final comparison a recent job offer from Darlington Borough Council for Environmental Protection Officer. The pay: £12,050 – £15,137 (£20,083 – £25,228 FT equivalent) – no vehicles provided – similar (same) role in the EA in the same area? Still £24,287 to £31,591 with lease car and phone both available for personal use (surprisingly true).

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Most instances, when illegal waste disposals (fly tipping) are reported to the Environment Agency, the first thing Environment Officers do is find any opportunity to pass the book to the local council’s environment team. Unofficial rule is that any illegal waste disposal that is under a certain size or perceived weight (varies between officers, teams and regions and far removed from official statutory guidelines) gets shoved off to the council, and only if we (the EA) are pressed on cases will we begin to move on it – especially if an MP or councillor gets involved (a tip for those experiencing problems with regulated activities).

Environment Officers like easy cases, or cases that will put them in the limelight or that help with their promotions – the dumping of a few hundreds tyres, fridges or bags of rubbish doesn’t interest them – no evidence sought, usually no one will attend or follow up on the incident (not even a quick phone call). A few thousands tyres on identifiable land will get our attention – we are very quick to act against the landowner, whether guilty or innocent, that is unless it is land owned by the EA itself – which we have been known to turn a blind eye to until called upon by the public, and again, this becomes pass the parcel inside the EA on what department should pick up the costs of disposal.

God forbid you are the unfortunate landowner impacted by illegal waste disposal. Seldom will investigating officers seek the real culprits unless you can provide evidence yourself (thus doing the Environment Officer’s work for them). Despite spending tens of thousands on external investigatory training courses, few staff will follow even the most obvious lines of inquiry if they can quickly point a finger at someone. Same with investigations into pollution incidents – we are supposed to follow all lines of inquiry and not jump to conclusions, but this is seldom done – as a result, many, many cases are dropped early on without prosecuting those responsible, and in many cases, there have been failed prosecutions by the EA within the court system (see other blog posts here).

In essence, illegal waste disposals (fly tipping) is not something the Environment Agency takes seriously unless it requires little effort. Even larger scale issues we have been known to turn a blind eye to even if we know about it but the public do not report it (sometimes even if they do) – another unofficial rule of thumb espoused by Environment Officers is to “drive with your blinkers on” – no point making extra work for yourself if it isn’t on anyone’s radar.

Should you be surprised by this attitude? Probably not. These are the same Environment Officers that seldom inspect the sites they are tasked to regulate without external pressure (hence the huge controversies in the media re waste sites/fires/storage issues). Don’t get me wrong, there are a few Environment Officers who go out of their way to deal with illegal waste disposals and to regulate the sites they have, unfortunately, they are few and far between.

Back to my point about the pareto principle and the EA in our earlier posts – 20% of the Environment Officers do the work of the remaining 80%. This is down to the culture implemented within the EA by team leaders and management, whereby there is very little oversight and field staff are given free rein to do as they please.

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Welcome to the new blog design for Inside the Environment Agency. Unfortunately, with the move to using WordPress, there has been an issue porting over the hundreds of blog comments left over the past year or so, which may cause some confusion with past blog posts considering some are based around these comments, especially some of the Environment Agency Staff Experience posts. We will have this resolved in due course. Still, feel free to leave new comments on any of our posts.

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Despite warnings and evidence given to the EA showing Environment Officers abusing their flexi hours holiday and home working privileges, it appears that no action has been taken by senior management. This is still a systemic problem that has yet to be tackled.

I’m sure most people are used to working a contracted number of hours per week and receiving x amount of days off per year. There isn’t usually much scope of working less hours without being paid less, or receiving more time off work without a special reason.

That’s true, that is, if you didn’t work for the Environment Agency. Here we are entrusted to log our own hours without oversight, holidays taken off are supposed to be recorded on a piece of card with a signature from management for approval, but this rarely happens. What does all this mean? Environment Agency employees (particularly Environment Officers) regularly come in later then they log down, leave much earlier than they report and take many more days off as annual leave than their entitlement.

I’ve seen fellow colleagues who have taken off as much as 8-12 weeks off work, fully paid, not as sick, but all as annual leave, despite only being contracted to 27 days plus flexidays. I’ve seen colleagues work less than 30 hours per week, who log down on their time sheets 37-40 hours. But what about line management I hear you ask? They never pay attention, and those that do turn a blind eye to it.

On a daily basis, I see fellow Environment Agency employees putting they work an extra 1-3 hours per day so that their time sheets match their contracted hours, so many of us who are ‘supposed’ to be doing our 37 hours per week are in fact doing as little as 30 hours per week. Not only that, but we can just take a day off, get the wink from our management and claim it as annual leave or a flexi-day, but in fact, it’s never logged. You just complete your time sheet as if you worked that day.

Better yet, you want to take off 9 days next month for that holiday to Ibiza, but you only have 8 ‘official’ days leave, no problems, log down an extra hour worked per day (but don’t work it) and hey presto, an extra flexi day off giving you 9. Don’t worry about line management, if they ‘somehow’ find out, most will overlook it.

This practice is well known internally and accepted as the norm, but just don’t talk about it, because no-one likes a tell all. I’ve seen it raised and the person raising it be shot down and destroyed. No one wants the party spoiled, so you just join in.

Ask yourself this, as a tax payer or licence payer whose money pays our salaries, how do you feel that we not only get better security and more money than you, but also literally get to choose how many hours we work and how many days holiday we can have, and all with minimal oversight? Don’t forget, most of us are regulatory officers with many powers who tell you what to do, yet we flout our own rules – it’s the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ syndrome.

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As a national organisation, the Environment Agency is entrusted to ensure that it carries out it’s duties in a fair and consistent manor. It is something espoused by the Agency in everything it publishes – unfortunately, it is far different from what is encouraged and practiced on the ground as an officer. It was part of our training, shadowing and regular practice to allow, either by overlooking or giving poor advice, operators and licencee’s to contravene rules and regulations in as far as even giving the “verbal” greenlight to operate in a way that would be considered a breach of permit/licence. This was encouraged with the future anticipation of building up a strong casefile to take against the operator/licencee so that we could justify greater legal action – this is in conflict with our duties to give open and fair guidance. This was explained as a way of improving our PR by having more casefiles on the go to largely justify our existence.

These are passed down from management in certain areas, and luckily, it isn’t widespread, but it is recommended by a significant number of  the management teams and certainly carried out by a large number of officers on the ground. It is, essence, a form of trickery and deception to boost casefiles.

What’s worse is how this “selection process” works when choosing which operator/licencee to pursue (pick on/give false advice to). Personal biases and opinions about operators and licence holders were regularly discussed in team meetings in order help decide who to target – especially if we had few problem operators and needed to boost stats. Some of these chosen operators and licence holders were “old” and some officers had the opinion that their time was up and that they shouldn’t continue to have the licence – they would become a target – we’d even develop methods of finding ways to score them to boost their annual subsistence fees. Being in an ethnic minority is a large no-no for a large number of officers, and these would be targeted – there were regular team discussions about racial profiling and targeting due to certain “perceptions” that they tend to operate illegal sites. Other techniques would be for one officer to regulate a site with a “light touch”, encourage operators to breach their permit, and then intentionally swap the site with another officer who would “come down like a ton of bricks”.

In many, many instances, if an officer didn’t like an operator or licence holder, then we’d focus more energy on them to “catch them out”, make it difficult granting new permits and we’d find ways of modifying the permits/licences to intentionally cause hassle – this was largely a game to many of us and had no environmental benefits.

The message I would like to get out is how the power given to the Agency is regularly abused, how personal opinions and biases impact real people and businesses with no benefit to the environmental or human health, and that what the Agency communicates to the outside world is usually a far cry from what is encouraged internally.

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It is common practice for Environment Officers to collaborate their statements when compiling a case against an offender. Common practice is for one Environment Officer to take all the notes, and then allow other Officers present to copy these notes once back at the office. Another common practice is for Environment Officers to write down notes in a normal notepad so that later a more convincing statement can be written back at the office that will help lead to a successful case. These practices should not be carried out by any law enforcement agency, but are standard practices in the Environment Agency.

Other practices are the exaggeration of ‘environmental crimes’ to justify prosecution cases that are otherwise not in the interests of the public. This is done by reclassifying pollutants and/or wastes as different substances other than present, such as making out hazardous properties that were not present, or by claiming a full environmental permit was required whereby only an exemption would have been needed. Other exaggerations include overstating financial benefits obtained, stating environmental impacts that were not the case and by not including extenuating circumstances at the time of the ‘offence’. Unfortunately, many of the ‘environmental offenders’ we deal with are small business/sole operators who have little knowledge or funds to fight back, and are all too willing to accept full blame in order to avoid greater penalties.

It is also common for Environment Officers to fail to follow through on all leads, instead choosing to allow their prejudgements to decide on how they conduct investigations, typically resulting in the cases being built up against the wrong business/person, which later has to be dropped when old evidence surfaces. These go unreported as they do not reach court, but accounts for a large waste of Environment Agency resources (time, funds, etc) and an additional cost to the businesses they regulate.

These are hard for people to prove against, because they take place back at the office when the case is being put together so that any inconsistencies can be ‘ironed’ out and for counter evidence to be removed (there are no processes or oversight on how evidence is stored and treated during the early stages of an investigation, we have our own cameras, use scraps of paper and own storage where we can decide on what we decide to present in a case).

There have been numerous cases whereby Environment Officers have entered land without permission from the landowner and without leaving a Notice of Powers and Rights when collecting evidence, but have then later, back in the office, completed this important document and destroyed the recipients half. Other times, Environment Officers leave the Notice where it can easily be lost, damaged and removed prior to the landowner seeing it. This leaves the landowner unaware of what has taken place or of their rights.

These pose significant problems for these people and businesses, as their legal teams then do not have the full picture and have to rely on what the prosecution provides (from the Environment Agency), which is obviously incomplete. In most cases, ‘offenders’ are happy to quickly remediate problems, but Environment Officers are unlikely to report this in their cases. As the people and businesses were unaware or did not anticipate these exaggerations, they never had the foresight to gather their own evidence to prove against the accusations.

This is a problem that seldom is highlighted, as it provides a good source of income and PR for the Environment Agency.

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So today, I was reading about the manpower waste being reported in a local newspaper, and it prompted me to repost the below blog post. But before that, I just have to post snippets from the report – residents shouldn’t be surprised by the manpower waste at the Environment Agency, I and many others have been reporting it for years:

RESIDENTS were left scratching their heads and wondering how many Environment Agency workers it takes to put up a sign after a team of four was spotted near the sea wall in Dymchurch… Resident Hilary Rich said: “We have just returned from a walk down to Dymchurch and, once again, are amazed at the waste of manpower by the Environment Agency.

Read more: http://www.folkestoneherald.co.uk/workers-does-erect-sign/story-22044734-detail/story.html#ixzz39nejuY1E

Originally posted last year: 3 Cars, 8 Environment Officers, 1 Meter

So, apologies for the delay in recent posts. With recent workload (with a competent organisation) and with the tribunal, I am quiet restricted in how much I can post and what I can disclose at this stage. My hopes are that once things settle down, I can begin posting more insights and uploading scanned copy of notes made during my time with the Environment Agency.

Today, however, I happened to bump in to almost a dozen of ex-colleagues, and it seems it’s “business as usual” a the Environment Agency. After a little conversing and cajouling (they had instructions not to speak with me), it seems the 8 Officers (along with their 3 vehicles) were out in my neck of the woods to take a reading from a flow meter. Seems the 5 so called experienced Environment Officers (I’ve worked with them and would say that is a stretch, no matter how many years they claim), were showing the 3 new Environment Officers how to read a meter.

I know that if this had been an incident, the Environment Agency would be able to charge back for each one of those Officer’s time under the Water Resources Act which at around £194 per hour for each “experienced” Officer could cost a tidy sum. Wise use of resources?

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Here are the latest insights from other Environment Agency staff:

Felix: “An important piece of advice for permit holders, fishers etc – ALWAYS CHALLENGE THE DECISION THAT WE MAKE, BECAUSE 9 times out of 10 WE’VE MADE A MISTAKE, and its YOU who will pay IF YOU DO NOT CHALLENGE IT. Take it from someone who has 10 years experience working for the EA doing prosecutions.

Another thing – if the EA want to save loads of cash, then they should GET RID OF LEASE CARS THAT SIT IDEAL 90% OF THE TIME, and buy POOL CARS for every office. Every single FIELD OFFICER HAS A LEASE CAR THAT THEY ONLY USE A HANDFUL OF TIMES A MONTH!

Al: “Hi I worked as a data officer a few years ago and left the job because there was so little challenge. I could have turned up for work for 6 months, done nothing and nobody would have noticed and if my line managers did notice they would not have challenged it because there is just not a culture of accountability at the environment agency. I have read here about employees using contracted hours for personal things and that is exactly the sort of practice that was going and I am not proud to say that I engaged in this sort of thing. Not because I thought it was right but because the management lets their employees get away with it. I could fiddle expenses, time claims, working hours, work that I had undertaken. There must have been times when I said I was going out to do a 2 hour job and taken 4 hours about it and just chilled for the rest of the time. I was also allowed to claim £5 a day for food expenses (subsistence) for a lunch when out of the office. Is that still allowed? It was not unheard of to have a cheap lunch and get a pizza for dinner later with the same £5. I had a company car to get me about. Admittedly I couldn’t drive it for personal business and at no time did I ever for fear of being liable for third party damage if there was an accident. But even so I had a car that could get me to and from work with £0 servicing and maintenance. This was all paid for through the company. Company phone too! I had to pay for my own calls which was done through some expense system but even that was at a cushty rate so saved me a whole lot of cash. There was also quite a culture of theft of company property. If there was a DIY project that I needed doing I would use company materials instead of getting my own and would not hesitate to use company tools (some of which I still have) to complete the job. Despite the short comings of some EA employees, some of the insults that are being made on this blog in my view are unjust. “Bone idle” and “imbred moron” are not particularly useful description of EA employees and the spelling mistake made when writing “inbred” is an indication of the level of intellect of the people writing them. Back in the late noughties (2006 to 2009) when I worked there things were different. The government had the money (or at least thought they did) to fund such frivolous spending but in this day and age it is clear that such waste in the public sector needs to be reigned in particularly when there are more vital government services that could be improved through extra funding. I am surprised that not much seems to have changed in the 5 years since leaving the EA and it seems the same malpractice seems to prevail. When I worked there there was a hardcore of middle aged middle managers who simply used to EA as a place to tick over in employment at the tax payer’s expense until they are old enough to collect their pension and this culture filters down through the ranks.

ExEO: “I think what people outside the EA fail to realise is that the people who work there do not have the publics interest at heart. There is too much office politics (above the norm for any organisation, let alone a public one). People are not employed based on merit or ability, but on who you know and whose back you have scratched. This internal mentality has resulted in fiefdoms, paranoia and poor leadership. All the good people leave early and all the poor performers stay on longest (employment for life pretty much no matter how shoddy your work is).

John: “You can consider me one of those senior EA manager – worked in various functions for 9 years, the last 3 as a AEM before leaving in 2011. Most functions outside of FCRM are over funded and inefficient (sustainable places, biodiversity, groundwater, fisheries, even EM itself). At least a fifth of the budget could be re-allocated to higher priority projects by reducing these functions without any detrimental impact to their ability to meet legislative requirements. Unfortunately, the Pitt Review from the 2007 floods was rushed, so didn’t go far enough, otherwise, the EA would not again be in the position it is in. That being said, there are some very fine, hard-working and dedicated employees.

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Below are some recent key stats for the Environment Agency, which will help illustrate the dire need for efficiency savings. Efficiency savings of just 10% could yield £120 million for extra flood defences.According to some more senior EA staff, the EA could manage 20-25% efficiency savings, yielding £240-300 million for extra flood defences – one particular area they claim is ripe for action is staffing/overmanning.

A few recent key stats for the Environment Agency:

  • £395 million on wages (£592 million incl pensions) vs £219 million on capital projects + £20 million on maintaining rivers
  • £5 million spent on redundancies but permanent workforce increased from 10,701 to 11,177 in the past year
  • The real employment levels at Environment Agency actually stood at 12,252 people (temps and contractor personnel)
  • £13 million on staff expenses, plus another £17m spent on staff travel
  • £31.5 million and £36.7 million spent on EA Government Procurement (Credit) Cards in 2011/12 and 2012/13 respectively
  • Directors at the agency declined bonuses but 38 managers shared a pool of £334,000
  • Past two years, 14 employees left with six-figure cheques, some in excess of £150,000
  • Spending on maintaining culverts and channels to help the flow of watercourses dipped by £1.3 million last year
  • £3.6 million was trimmed off the budget to build or improve embankments that protect communities from floods
  • Environment Agency spent hundreds on ‘equali-tea’ gay awareness mugs… and £30,000 on gay pride marches
  • Spent over £250k from 2011 to mid-2012 on meetings at private venues, despite having over two dozen offices around the country
  • Spent almost £1 million hiring dredging equipment after it sold its own machines for just £200,000
  • Nearly 7,000 vehicles (plus trucks) – more than one official vehicle for every two employees
  • Environment Agency bosses spent £2.4 million on PR alone (excluding staff wages)
  • A £2 million Environment Agency case ended with a fine of just £1,000
  • Environment Agency to pay back as much as £1.5 million in another court case that they dropped
  • 20-25% of business travel costs lost to fraudulent cases costing an estimated £1.8-£4.5 million
  • Significant number of man-hours lost in abuse of flexi time, home working and annual leave

Other areas to look into are costs of moving offices, department restructures, lost cases and external training programmes in recent years. This excludes the personal experiences of EA staff who have posted their stories of waste and abuse.

This leads to an important question. Has there ever been an independent audit of the Environment Agency’s finances? If not, why not?

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Over the past few years, the Environment Agency have been introducing an intelligence system that is based on the gathering and analysis of intelligence in order to help determine how their resources are targeted. Unlike the police service, where such information is highly classified with access restricted to senior personnel to ensure accountability, the intelligence system in the Environment Agency is open to all Environment Officers, regardless of need, including new recruits.

The troubling aspect of this system is the large amount of unsubstantiated rumour that is required from officers and the public. The information DOES NOT have to be true, as the purpose of the system is to form links between people, vehicles, addresses, etc through number plates, relationships, living arrangements, telephone numbers, etc. The idea behind the system is good, in theory, but in practice, as with other activities within the Environment Agency, it has, and continues to be abused.

I have witnessed individual Environment Officers making up rumours of operators, members of the public and other individuals to which they have a grudge and inputting this onto the system repeatedly to encourage the initiation of an investigation. We have undercover surveillance teams with vans who operate in public – visiting premises as customers, etc based on this information.

The troubling part is that I have witnessed surveillance teams gather sensitive information on these targets, and share them with these same officers (despite no case or evidence being present) for banter.Other officers have inputted rumours of people they dislike on the system for humour alone. The undercover surveillance officers have on a number of occasions, after performing searches and collecting evidence, brought back private materials, such as intimate pictures that have no relation to cases, and shared these with other Environment Agency staff in the office for humour. This is highly distasteful and although I reported these incidents internally on a number of occasions, they were passed off as “isolated” cases and swept under the carpet, but this behaviour still continues.

This system is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act or Data Protection Act (Subject Access Requests), but does contain substantial and sometimes highly sensitive information on members of the public, much of which is rumour.

With the emergency phone and internet data retention law due to be passed, we must question how much more power agencies like the EA will get receive, especially considering these abuses of the existing system.

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