It isn’t ‘new news’ that local government has lost a third of its funding over this period of austerity, with increasing pressures of tightening budgets not keeping up with the rate of inflation, and the general cost of living crisis. With almost nine out of 10 councils predicting a budget deficit in the 2023-24 financial year it can seem counter-intuitive to invest in interim resources and look, instead, to plug gaps via internal resources or find other sticking plaster solutions.
While this can provide temporary relief, the longer-term impact can be costly in terms of workforce overload, staff retention and transformational momentum.
The mounting pressure on internal resources to take on additional workload is often causing organisations to lose the talent they already have. This in turn leads to higher turnover of staff and higher recruitment costs, not to mention the effect this has on culture within the organisation.
This level of disruption can have a domino effect at organisational level arresting development of strategically important initiatives aimed at future growth, or create inefficiencies and log jams across business-as-usual service delivery. Longer term, the gains simply aren’t there.
Of course, there will always be the need to hire interim resources to cover vacant positions while a new permanent member of staff is recruited. These assignments can vary in length depending upon circumstances – be it local elections, internal restructure or a new chief executive still to be hired who will be personally involved in hiring decisions. In these instances, interim executives offer a way for your organisation to get the leadership it needs today, without the risk of making the wrong hire, or the right hire but at the wrong time.
Many councils in the most difficult of financial situations often have several senior strategic interims among their leadership team. This can provide the immediate expertise and decision making that is needed. By being very clear on their objectives and the tangible outcomes they wish to achieve, these councils are able to utilise the interim’s expertise to oversee innovation projects and drive forward transformational change to create efficiencies and save money in the long run.
These local authorities have discovered that interim candidates, when used and directed effectively, are an excellent way to keep talent within their organisations, operating more flexibly and building expertise within the organisation through knowledge transfer and upskilling.
Executive interims should hit the ground running and do not waste time or suck up resources in getting to grips with the role or transitioning into the organisation as a permanent hire might. Project plans and programme delivery plans can be identified, shaped and implemented at speed, keeping organisations on track in terms of the transformation needed to effect better, more efficient service delivery.
Many interims have worked across a multitude of organisations and have most likely seen and addressed similar problems before and know how it can be effectively and efficiently resolved. They bring a range of context to situations, often from different environments that will help identify not just potential solutions but the risks that may accompany these strategies and the mitigations that should be in place. The longer- term benefits and cost savings of this approach can be very quickly realised.
Investment in interim resources should be forward looking with a large element more strategically budgeted by local authorities to ensure they make the spend remunerative.
Of course, unforeseen resource issues and ‘gaps’ will always occur but interims should be seen as a flexible enabling resource that will accelerate change and require little organisational or leadership maintenance.
The challenge for advisors like us is to continue to build and refresh a deep and diverse pool of interim executives who understand local government and all its complexities, who bring depth of knowledge and objectivity. For stakeholders, they then provide an ideal sounding board that simply cannot be offered by in-situ staff and, more importantly, become the captains of change.
Abi O’Brien is a consultant in GatenbySanderson’s local government interim leadership team