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Balancing pressure and passion

Written by: Steve Guest is director of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business
Published on: 14 Dec 2023

Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion’ Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Yes, it’s a quote from a long time ago and the world has changed a lot since Hegel’s days, but his comment still holds true. Indeed, the landscape for local government has changed so much in just the last 20 years I’ve been working in the sector that in many respects the issues have evolved and changed beyond recognition. However, the importance of passion for the work we do and the difference we make remains a constant.

Being a recruiter, I get to have a lot of conversations with a lot of people up and down the country. Mine is a very privileged position, where I get to spend a lot of time with local government officers working at all levels, across all services. That privilege extends to spending a lot of time with elected members.

Whether speaking with officers or members, many of those conversations tend to reflect the scale of that change and the opportunities and challenges the sector now faces. One of the biggest challenges that often crops up in conversation is the workforce. The term ‘workforce crisis’ may have sounded hyperbole a few short years ago, but now it is accepted as practical reality. I am not hearing anyone challenge the term and there is no suggestion that the phrase overstates how serious the situation has become. There are myriad causes as to why the situation has become so profound, from ageing demography, lack of meaningful succession planning and changes to national policy.

These challenges give me and others cause to reflect on why people join local government in the first place – either as officers or as elected members. Simply put, we need to get more people choosing a career in local government.

When considering what motivates people to consider becoming a local government officer or standing to become an elected member, there is some commonality between the two. There is a common and overriding theme around wishing to make a difference to the local area. The ability to give something back, to make a difference in a place that you have personal emotional investment in, a place that your family and/or friends live in. It’s a very powerful motivator that in many cases outstrips financial reward as the key driver to work in local government.

As a consequence of this, when considering the officer side for a moment, local government is often one of the major local employers of many of our towns and cities throughout the country, reflecting local people passionately seeking to make a difference to their locality.

However, as a local government officer’s career develops and progresses, there is, of course potentially the need to move away to another area in order to secure that next career step. Yes, for some, the opportunities arise locally, even within the same organisation that they started. However, for many the need to progress one’s career requires a move to a different organisation, often one that isn’t an immediate neighbour. This is where the drivers and motivations can diverge from those of local politicians, who tend to remain representatives of the same local area.  

Why am I making this distinction? Simply put, it is my observation that when recruiting senior officers, elected members will often be seeking the same passion, drive and motivation for the locality that they hold themselves. Elected members are elected in order to act as custodians for place and when they are seeking to recruit a senior officer, they are looking for someone equally passionate about that place, to act as ambassador, champion and voice in order to make the locality and lives of residents better.

What does this mean for a senior officer seeking to take that next step in their career? I’m certainly not suggesting offering shallow, half-hearted sentiments about a local place in order to flatter and impress a panel of elected members. However, what I am suggesting is it is of paramount importance that a candidate undertakes a sufficient depth of research and due diligence into a place in order to fully understand the locality, the communities and their opportunities and challenges. Members want to be assured that candidates are invested in the place as much as they are. ‘Any council’ answers won’t impress anyone and a candidate suggesting to members it was the job that attracted them to apply rather than the place is likely to have limited impact.

Take the time to do the research, think yourself into that role and think about what you would seek to achieve if you were appointed. Consider what the challenges are but also what the opportunities are so you can articulate at interview insight into the local area, as well as your understanding of what needs to be done in the role. Do the local walkabout, speak to residents, speak to local businesses. That way, you can offer clear reassurance that you offer the passion for the place elected members are expecting.

The above advice may seem obvious, but my concern is as resource and demand pressures increase, there is less time for candidates to prepare and invest the time in a senior recruitment process. We fully acknowledge it is a significant time and attention investment participating in a senior recruitment process, but the importance of taking the time to undertake that preparation work is absolutely critical. The busier we get, the higher the risk this investment is not being made.

No matter how senior we get, we need to remember why we got into local government in the first place.

Steve Guest is director of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business