Developing a creed to lead

January 18, 2017   By Claire Mansfield, Head of Research

Councils are changing. No longer just seen as service deliverers, they are collaborators and place leaders, commissioning councils, commercial councils and co-operative councils.

But while the purpose and priorities of a local authority have transformed, the structure of councils, the skills of the workforce and work practices have been slower to catch up.

The workforce is the lifeblood of any organisation and no more so than in a local authority. As councils transform, the way the workforce engages with communities, collaborates with stakeholders and shapes places, will be critical.

Councils are being asked to deliver more with less and this has caused considerable pressures for local authority staff, but more than this, many of the changes take an entirely new approach to work, and draw on a new set of skills, values and competencies.

At the same time, the advantages of working for local government are also less clear.

A new set of benefits needs to be clearly outlined for the workforce of today and the future. In our recent report, Outside the Box: the council workforce of tomorrow – in partnership with the Local Government Association, and supported by GatenbySanderson and the Public Service People Managers’ Association – we explore what a ‘new deal’ could look like.

In order to find out what would help recruit and retain the ‘brightest and the best’ for local government, we looked at the current motivation to work for a council.

We had fantastic engagement across the workforce with over 2,500 responses from local government officers to our survey. We also surveyed senior HR officers from 113 councils across England.

A public service ethos was the most common motivation to work for local government. Being able to serve their community, make a difference and improve the place where they live was important to those working for local authorities. This was just as relevant for officers with decades of experience as those who joined in the last few years. One recent graduate told us: ‘I want to be able to see something and say “I did that, I helped achieve that” to my mum and dad.’

But we also uncovered significant frustrations. While a public service ethos is attractive, people start to work for councils and then find the hierarchical culture and micro-management stifles their ability to innovate. One respondent said: ‘There’s too much red tape and time to get the simplest things done.’

Hierarchy is understandable in such large organisations, but if local government is to retain and recruit the top talent, the working culture will need to change.

Councils will need to create a culture that is more trusting, more supportive and more empowering. Organisations worldwide are trying this. For example, FAVI (a French manufacturing company) and Buurtzorg (a Dutch homecare provider) have both made efforts to create more trusting, self-managing cultures and have seen their productivity improve. Less hierarchical, self-managing organisations report high levels of satisfaction, low turnover, and low sickness rates. At Buurtzorg, turnover is 33% lower than traditional nursing organisations.

There are practical ways in which local government can create a less hierarchical culture such as a flatter, self-managing working culture, changes to organisational structure and perhaps, emphasising the importance of leadership rather than management.

As well as transforming working culture, councils will also have to address their external profile.

Local government has an image problem. For myriad reasons, it is often negatively stereotyped by the media and the public.

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’. 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 is 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 sure councils are more visible to the public. Usually, much of the public has very little reason to be in direct contact with their local council and when they do, it is often because something has gone wrong. 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.

Online tools such as staff blogs and social media are also used to promote the ‘human face’ of the council. Allowing employees to tweet about their job (under their real names) can promote the range of work the council does.

What councils do and how they do it has changed almost immeasurably over the last few years. Transformation plans help to make this happen but it is now time for the organisational cultures and structures to catch up.

People need to be at the heart of these changes. Recruiting and retaining the council workforce for the future will be critical.

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