Claire Mansfield, head of research at the New Local Government Network (NLGN), Lucy Terry, senior researcher at the organisation, Barry Pirie, a former PPMA president, and current PPMA president Caroline Nugent, discuss the findings of the recent ‘Outside the Box: The Council Workforce of Tomorrow’ report.
The workforce is the lifeblood of any organisation, and no more so than in a local authority. But working for a council has changed immeasurably over the last five to 10 years.
Budget cuts have meant councils have had to transform. They are collaborators and place leaders, commissioning councils, commercial councils and co-operative councils. The workforce has been asked to reinvent itself – not just to deliver services but to be entrepreneurial, engaging and creative. And all of this against a backdrop of budget reductions, less secure jobs and an erosion of the promotions ladder.
As councils face an uncertain future, it’s crucial that they have a workforce that fits their changing needs. In NLGN’s report ‘Outside the Box’, we argue that this will take a culture change for councils (both internally and externally) to ensure that local government can recruit, retain and develop the workforce it will need in the future.
Working for local government presents a conundrum. Our research revealed that the vast majority work for local government, and enjoy doing so, because of the public service ethos; people are drawn to local government because they want to contribute to their community.
But while a public service ethos attracts people, once working they find the hierarchical culture, bureaucracy and poor management stifle their ability to innovate. If local government is to retain and recruit the top talent, the internal, hierarchical working culture will need to change.
In ‘Outside the Box’ we explore ways in which councils can create a new working culture. First and foremost, we argue that councils need to work towards self-management where staff are given greater autonomy. While at first this seems like a daunting cultural shift, especially for democratically accountable monoliths like councils, examples from across the globe such as Buurtzorg and Michelin show that it is possible.
Changes to autonomy need to go hand in hand with changes to management styles and a move from management towards leadership. The requirements to lead a team are quite different from managing. Creating leaders who may not be experts in their area, but are open and listening will be vital to breaking down the hierarchical culture.
While the organisational cultural change will be important, councils should also become more outward-facing and engage with the public to counter negative perceptions. This is, of course, important for a whole host of reasons, but particularly so in the context of recruiting the future workforce.
Recruiting for local authorities is not always an easy task – particularly for some roles such as planners or commercial roles. Salaries can often be higher in the private sector but more than that, HR directors told us that the greatest barrier to recruiting talent is the ‘negative perception of local government’. It’s not seen as a place for entrepreneurial, dynamic or ambitious employees. To counteract this image, local authorities need to become more outward-facing and promote the values that they hold strong. This can be done using both traditional methods and virtually.
Councils can be seen as remote places – austere, labyrinth-like buildings that the public only associate with problems or paying a bill. Opening up the council building by integrating in cafés, theatres or libraries (e.g. Wiltshire, Birmingham, Wakefield) can make councils more visible to the public. At the same time, councils need to ensure their online presence is also engaging and open. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook can be used to make the council more visible. Taking this a step further, allowing employees to tweet from work shows a wider audience the varied and dynamic nature of a local government job.
These changes can, and will, make a difference to the public’s perception of councils over the long term, but in the short term councils will need to promote themselves during the recruitment process. ‘Promoting’ the council would have once seemed unnecessary, but as the job market becomes more competitive and council benefits are not what they were, this has become more and more important. Microsite and YouTube videos interviewing current staff can all help to attract new recruits who may be curious about what working for the council is like.
Local authorities can also emphasise the unique benefits of working for local government that set it apart from the private sector. Our research found that public sector ethos and work-life balance were the features that most attracted people to work in local government – key values of millennials.
Local government prides itself on its dependable, stable nature – and it has a right to be proud of this as it has negotiated the difficult past few years. But in order to face the future, councils will need to shake up their culture, and become more collaborative, creative and self-determined. It’s essential that we all create a culture that can help embrace these values.