Outside the Box: The Council Workforce of Tomorrow

December 8, 2016   By Lucy Terry and Claire Mansfield

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  • Public sector ethos is the most common motivation for workers across local government (42%)
  • Job security and work life balance now much more important to council staff than salary
  • 86% of council staff are under pressure to deliver more with less
  • 83% of council staff have increased workloads and broader roles

Local government needs to continue to make radical changes if it is to be fit for purpose, a report published today by NLGN has found. With a workforce that is under pressure to deliver more with less – as 86% of council staff surveyed reported – new strategies must be found to ensure services continue to be delivered.

With over 700,000 local government jobs lost between 2010 and 2016, many in the sector are frustrated and demotivated which risks impacting on the future sustainability of councils. Staff reported feeling that ‘there’s too much red tape’ and ‘we are constrained by ever increasing organisational and dictatorial hierarchical structures’, with others concerned about the perception of council workers to the public: ‘We battle with the perception that people who work here are only waiting for their pensions’.

The research also found that public sector ethos (42%), job security (34%) and work life balance (40%) are much more important to council staff than salary (16%). However, the research found that the importance of public sector ethos had a huge disparity across council staff – this is a much lower priority for those in front line roles. This contributes to the reputation of councils as a positive place to work.

Claire Mansfield, Head of Research at NLGN and co-author of the report said:

“Councils have already faced some of the most drastic cuts in the public sector, and have made a rapid rapid amount of change over the last few years, and need to focus on ensuring the workforce are supported and empowered to deliver more with less.

“It is encouraging that public sector ethos and work life balance came out so strongly as motivations for local government. There is a great opportunity for local councils to embrace these priorities in their recruitment and retention of staff, but this may require a change in working practices across local councils.

The report recommends that:

  • Councils should implement clear workforce strategies to prioritise increasing autonomy and reducing hierarchy – culture and practices of the workforce have the biggest impact on service delivery.
  • Chief Executives, council leaders and workforce leaders should take part in a nationwide forum such as the LGA ‘Workforce Partnership Forum’, to support the development of council workforce strategies through sharing best-practice, peer challenge and external advice.
  • Councils should become more outward-facing and engage with the public to counter negative perceptions of working for a council.
  • Central government and local authorities should implement mechanisms that reward hard work, initiative and innovation.

Jon Houlihan, Partner, Local Government, Social Care at GatenbySanderson said:

“In changing times it is more critical than ever to ensure that the leadership population across local government is equipped with the altered leadership attributes and approaches that will enable successful futures. Attributes such as being able to balance the social and commercial aspects of strategy, and to drive execution through advanced partnership influencing and negotiation will differentiate the best leaders from the rest.

“Much can be achieved at the organisational level through holistic talent approaches, but we will close the leadership gap most effectively if talent is considered at a system at the sector level.”

The research found some positive examples of where councils have changed their working practices to remove hierarchical barriers and empower staff of all levels of seniority. St Albans City and District Council have moved to an open plan office where all staff from the chief executive to apprentices can speak directly to councillors. Additionally, they have invested in developing all their workforce.

Councillor Julian Daly, Leader of St Albans City and District Council, said:

“To compete in the jobs market, we have had to find new ways of recruiting talented professionals, graduates and school leavers.

“We cannot always match the salaries offered by private sector firms and London Councils. Instead, we highlight the quality of life that St Albans Council employees enjoy and the opportunities to work on projects that directly impact local residents.

“The advantages include a strong focus on career development, flexible working and a modern, inclusive approach to management.

“We’ve also developed training programmes to grow our own. For example, we recently created – in partnership with a local further education college – apprenticeships in planning.”

The research was carried out in 2016, including two surveys of England’s local government workforce and HR directors, two roundtables, and a series of interviews. Further case studies can be found in the report.

Barry Pirie, Director of People and Business at Wiltshire Council and Immediate past president of PPMA said:

“One of the biggest challenges to the health of public services in the future is our ability to retain and attract the right calibre of people who can design, manage and deliver them. The current wave of change in local government provides the perfect opportunity for talented people to join the sector and seize the opportunity to lead the way in creating the new ways of working in our organisations which will deliver on this. If we are to do this then the top priority for councils leaders and HR teams must be to put in place the measures which create a flexible working environment where autonomy and innovation are valued and rewarded.”

Video of the Report Launch below:

Chair: Adam Lent, Director, NLGN

Jody Goldsworthy, Senior Partner, Leadership and Talent Consultancy, GatenbySanderson
Barry Pirie, Director of People and Business, Wiltshire Council and Immediate Past President of PPMA
Claire Mansfield, Head of Research
Lucy Terry, Senior Researcher, NLGN
Ryan Mann, National Management Trainee and Amanda Foley, Head of Corporate Services, St Albans City & District Council

Sarah Messenger, Head of Workforce, LGA
Andy Donald, Chief Executive, London Borough of Redbridge
Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor, London Borough of Lewisham

December 8, 2016
Authored by

Lucy Terry and Claire Mansfield
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