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2020’s futuristic vision – and the reality

Written by: Julie Towers is managing director of Penna
Published on: 12 Dec 2019

Bob Larkin, writing earlier this month for Best Life, said: ‘It’s hard to imagine that we’re almost living in the year 2020.

Although we’ve seen plenty of impressive technological advances, like artificial intelligence and phones that unlock by scanning our face, it is not quite the world of flying cars and robot butlers people once imagined we would be living in by now. In fact, decades ago, predictions about the futuristic and revolutionary changes we’d see in this far-off sounding year were quite lofty.’

He then outlined many weird and wonderful predictions about the year 2020 – from flying houses, to the evolution of our feet with no toes, and apes as chauffeurs. Perhaps the distance of time allows us to be more fanciful when making predictions; but when it’s just around the corner, it is hard to be anything other than pragmatic when I write my reflections on 2019 and look ahead to 2020.

In 2019, talent remained at a premium, but IR35 and a shortage of directors of children’s services, S151 and general leadership talent did give rise to a more rounded approach from employers in the public sector, who paid greater attention to succession planning, were more flexible about the type of talent and contracts they secured and invested more in people who could deliver change and transformation. All of this meant that the level of interim demand remained high, but the areas of need were different – more programme management, heads of service technical leads – less senior roles and more defined statement of works delivery-focused contracts. With continued economic and funding uncertainty this is probably not such a big surprise and likely to be a feature of 2020 and beyond until the B***** word is done, or not done – or we have another referendum.

The big talent demand areas were housing, regeneration, planning, inclusive growth and infrastructure, with 38% of all roles at a senior level advertised in The MJ in this area.

It is encouraging to see the UK start to motor on some key investments for our future. There may not be flying houses as predicted by one pundit in 1967, but there will be more houses, and hopefully more affordable housing if we continue to drive the central and local government efforts in this area. Not surprisingly, this means those with expertise in this area were in high demand, both interim and permanent.

Chief executive turnover continued to be high, following a busy 2018, with a number of moves, retirements and ‘mutually agreed exits’, particularly after the May elections. With sweeping political and personality changes came a number of changes at the top – emphasising more than ever the vulnerability of the chief executive officer role in political change.

The uncertainty of next year politically and financially makes it difficult to predict, and until Friday 13 December it is hard to say what ups and downs the sector and therefore the recruitment market may face; but a review of the manifestos means whichever colour the country goes, the money will need to be focused rather than found.

It is clear that all parties recognise the talent crisis in the NHS and the Police, but very little has been said about the real issues of talent for the regeneration programmes that are desperately needed in our transport and homes infrastructure; or the social care crisis which is due to a lack of money and talent.

For me, the links between our education system and the real skills and talents needed remains fractured. If nobody wants the jobs we need the most of – all the AI and robotic technology in the world will not solve it.

People must want to work in public service, they must be driven and motivated to understand the difference they can make; and they must be rewarded appropriately.

Whoever is in power from 13 December would do well to think about how they help public services develop an employer value proposition and new psychological contracts for the future. Local government has been one of the most efficient areas of the public sector in delivering savings through technological innovation and efficiency, but there’s a point of stretch too far, and I hope the signs of investment in talent retention and development we have seen emerge this year are a prediction of more to come.

In 1997, when authors Schwartz and Leyden predicted that Americans would be able to e-vote by 2020, if not sooner, I am sure they were confident that the then emergent technologies, with 23 more years of development, would ensure that their prediction came true.

Reading this now, and thinking of the significant advancements in technology and encryption, I’m amazed we haven’t got e-voting already. In the 2015 General Election only 16.7% used postal voting. And yet we know that postal voting improves attendance, with over 85% of those registered for a postal vote submitting their ballot, whereas only 63% turnout is recorded from those who choose to register personally at the polling station.

So, it seems that while some predictions are far-fetched, others are just about the alignment of timing, innovation, priorities, cost and demand. Here’s to 2020 and whatever it may bring.

Julie Towers is managing director of Penna

Julie Towers