Creative, courageous and innovative – the council workforce of tomorrow

February 1, 2017   By Lucy Terry, Senior Researcher and Claire Mansfield, Head of Research, NLGN

Councils are changing. Prompted by the funding cuts of the last decade, they have had to transform. No longer just seen as service deliverers, they are becoming collaborators, place leaders, commissioning councils, commercial councils and cooperative councils.

But ambitious transformation plans can only be achieved through a workforce with the capabilities to make them a reality. The 21st Century Public Servant project has already demonstrated that a completely new set of skills and values are needed in local government today. Local government needs a workforce that is collaborative, commercially savvy, able to cross boundaries and be flexible, creative, and empowered to make change.

But that is a lot to demand of any workforce. How can councils attract staff with these skills and competencies and what can they offer them in return?

Last year NLGN carried out a research project that spoke to the current local government workforce (including a survey of 2,500 local government employees), interviewed HR directors and identified some of the most relevant cutting-edge working practices both in the UK and internationally.

We wanted to understand how councils can develop a workforce equipped to use these new skills and address new challenges. How can councils enable their staff to flourish and thrive, and how can they make themselves attractive to new employees? The final report Outside the Box: The Council Workforce of Tomorrow was published last month.

The most promising finding was that the greatest motivation to work in local government was the “public service ethos” – people wanted to make a difference to the community. But the workforce we surveyed also felt hampered by a hierarchical culture; by layers of management and slow decision making processes; and by managers who micro-manage, rather than lead.

This hardly marries with what councils need today: creativity, courageousness and innovation. Outside the Box makes the case for a non-hierarchical working culture that allows these qualities to thrive; a supportive and enabling environment which means employees can do what they came into local government to do – make a difference.

We call for a fundamental cultural change within local government to enable the new skills and qualities local government needs, as well as attracting in new talent to local government. The working culture needs to be front and centre of any ‘new deal’ for the local government workforce.

As well as transforming working culture, councils will also have to change their external profile. HR directors told us that the greatest barrier to recruiting talent is the negative perception of local government. Councils are not seen as places for entrepreneurial, dynamic or ambitious employees and staff are all too often stereotyped as ‘jobsworths’. And while that description was probably never fair, it is particularly inaccurate for today’s workforce as they innovate their way through the funding cuts.

If councils are to attract the ‘best and the brightest’ it’s critical that they actively work to counteract this stereotype. A more outward-facing council with a focused recruitment strategy will be crucial to attract a diverse range of skills and experiences, including people who wouldn’t previously have chosen local government. Opening up the council building can make councils more visible to the public. Some councils such as Wakefield and Wiltshire are now open plan and integrate libraries or cafes into their buildings – getting people through the door other than to pay a bill.

Becoming much more outward-facing and ambitious about the potential of the workforce has the potential to make local government an exciting career choice for the next generation. Moreover, it means councils will be much better equipped to meet the considerable challenges facing them.

In partnership with the LGA, and supported by GatenbySanderson and PPMA, Outside the Box: The Council Workforce of Tomorrow looks at the potential of workforce strategies to meet the strategic and operational challenges facing local government.

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