Advice — the Cinderella Service of ACAS?

Publication Date01 Apr 1987
AuthorIan Brough
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
Advice the
Service of ACAS?
by Ian Brough
Department of Management Studies,
Scottish College of Textiles, Galashiels
Fire-fighting is always far more spectacular than fire
prevention. There is the strike called off at the last minute,
the settlement of a hard-fought dispute all this is much
more likely to grasp public attention than those activities,
however praiseworthy, that might prevent the strike or
dispute in the first place. It is not therefore surprising that
the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)
is known as the "Conciliation Service" by the media, and
fixed in the popular mind as a body concerned with keeping
the warring factions apart in industrial disputes, a view
reinforced by the fact that ACAS was simply the Conciliation
and Arbitration Service (CAS) for the first six months of its
existence, and, even by March 1976; we find a senior ACAS
official saying that "Conciliation is the principal function of
Yet the Advisory Service is a far greater user of ACAS's
financial resources, accounting for 40 per cent of the
compared with eight per cent for the arbitration and
collective conciliation functions[2] and a similar proportion
of staff time[3]. The Advisory Service is clearly of great
importance to ACAS. But is it also of great importance to
managers or the public?
More especially, since the cost of the Advisory Service in
1984-5 must have been about £5 million (although costs
are approximate because of the combination of conciliation
and advisory work by many officers), governments in times
of economic stringency might well expect clear evidence
that the users of the ACAS Advisory Service felt it to be
One solution to the problem of evaluating the effectiveness
of the ACAS Advisory Service would be to introduce charges
for it; many of the advisory services at present available from
ACAS are also available from consultants on a fee-paying
The rationale for this approach is simply to "let the
market decide" the extent to which a resource is valued
is then reflected in the degree of demand for it. However,
employees in small or marginal firms might find it difficult
to justify payment for an advisory service hitherto supplied
free of charge.
The extent to which ACAS can introduce charges for its
services is in any case much more severely curtailed in the
case of advice than for arbitration and collective conciliation,
since at its inception the (Labour) Government was very
insistent that its advice should be free of charge, and this
appears in its legal charter the Employment Protection
Act, s.4.
But the problem remains how can the ACAS Advisory
Service prove its effectiveness? In the case of conciliation
and arbitration, ACAS can point to its success in preventing
strikes or curtailing disutes. In the case of individual (legal)
conciliation, it can point to the fact that, under Unfair
Dismissal and most employment law jurisdictions, two-thirds
of the cases raised are disposed of by ACAS without the
need to use more costly industrial tribunal procedures. In
the case of advice, however, the only indicator of its
effectiveness is the extent to which customers ask for more.
Although ACAS regularly publishes in its annual reports
various indices relating to the use of its Advisory Service,
these are designed to illustrate broad trends in the use of
the service they do not tell us what clients thought of
the advice or whether they used it successfully. We will
develop this point further in the next section. We will then
turn to other attempts to evaluate the Advisory Service of
ACAS especially a comprehensive study by Armstrong
and Lucas[4], the findings of which are compared with those
from a small-scale study (by the author) of industrial
relations in one area, in the course of which respondents
were asked detailed questions about ACAS. These studies
differ from the ACAS statistics in their approach; they all
asked clients of the Advisory Service managers and trade
unions for their views.
Finally, a consideration of the responses of managers in the
author's survey which was carried out in a small-firm area
allows a consideration of the wider problem of ACAS
involvement with small firms.
Evaluation I: The ACAS Statistics
ACAS regularly analyses its advisory work by topic, industry
size of organisation and region. It produces separate
analyses both for in-depth work (which includes advisory
projects, surveys, joint working parties and extended training
exercises) and for short-term work (mainly advisory visits
and advisory enquiries dealt with in the office). The resulting
statistics are published each year in the ACAS annual
The most obvious way to evaluate the
effectiveness of the ACAS Advisory Service would be from
these statistics, since they should show in considerable
detail the extent of customer demand for ACAS's Advisory
In fact, there are two factors which limit the usefulness of
these figures: first, as a matter of policy, ACAS has, since
concentrated its advisory resources on in-depth at
the expense of short-term work, arguing that in-depth work
has more impact on the industrial relations practices of
As Figure 1 shows, this has resulted in consistent
growth for in-depth work over the last ten years, whereas
the years since 1980 have seen a fall in the number of
advisory visits. Thus, by 1984 and 1985, ACAS was devoting
over 50 per cent of its advisory time to in-depth work rather
than advisory visits[6].*
* The situation is exacerbated by the fact that in-depth work typically
requires 12 man days, whereas advisory visits, as their name implies, are
very short typically a day or less[7].
22 ER 9,4 1987

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