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Does the sector need to switch the narrative?

Written by: Sally Wilson is a principal consultant within GatenbySanderson’s interim leadership local government practice
Published on: 1 Feb 2024

I can’t tell you how many articles I read in 2023 that listed the challenges facing local government’s recruitment and retention efforts. Just like I can’t count how many times my executive search colleagues shared their disappointment at initially smaller long lists for aspiring leaders in the sector. And don’t ask me to guess how many times I reached out to a long serving, retiring executive-level professional to explore a new career in interim management, only to be told they’d had enough. So, is this current narrative just a case of bad PR for the sector or is there something more intrinsic to tackle in the story we have to tell for local government?

Not so long ago, it seemed the outside world was looking in, newly appreciating the critical role the sector played in delivering and innovating services to protect the most vulnerable and whole communities during the Covid pandemic. Surely, this legacy should have acted as a magnet for the sector, drawing in new talent as well as securing existing leaders for the long term? 

That’s not the case in terms of retention at least, even at the very top. In 2023 we tracked a 122% increase in the number of CEO roles advertised across local government. While some of these reflect new commercial vehicles or subsidiaries, most were existing CEOs stepping down. Though change will act as a catalyst for new ideas, this level of change is far higher than we are seeing in other sectors. In health for example, though we saw a significant increase in CEO turnover as we emerged from the pandemic in 2021 (around 115% higher than normal), the numbers have since stabilised and are just 15% higher than an average year. In central government, chief executive-level or equivalent recruitment is around 50% higher than we would typically expect.

So why the difference in local government and how do we positively raise its profile to inspire the next generation and retain the critical and flexible skills that interim managers bring? I think part of the answer lies in the narrative the sector collectively inspires. During a ‘transformation and change’ sector event GatenbySanderson hosted last year, each speaker recalled what had galvanised them to join the sector. One spoke of seeing, first hand, the impact of outdoor activity centres; another referred to a 90s TV programme The Troubleshooter and another referenced reading the book Beyond authority.

In the context of 2024, where would a future public servant be inspired to join the sector? Why isn’t one of the challenges on The Apprentice running/transforming a local authority service? Why aren’t tech innovators being profiled for their work to deliver community transformation? Why isn’t a TV company getting behind the Local Government Challenge? That would make a great TV show.

I do hope that publishers are fighting for the rights to publish memoirs of inspiring local government servants we lost last year like Sir Bob Kerslake and John Barratt. But I suspect that sadly won’t be the case.

Deborah Cadman featured as a guest of the popular business show The High Performance Podcast in 2023, which felt like a great start, but why haven’t we had a single chief executive on Steven Bartlett’s Diary of a CEO podcast when there has been representation from so many other sectors?

Why don’t we shout from the roof tops about the amazing things the sector is doing? If people knew more about what a local authority did, might they be more inspired to support them?

It reminds me of the West Wing episode when Leo McGarry encourages his staff to meet with fringe special interest groups. The background to the day is America’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, arranging a two-ton block of cheese in the White House foyer from which everyone was welcome to eat, symbolising the openness of the White House. While I’m not pitching for a giant Gloucestershire to be rolled to County Halls, what if we were to take this openness more directly to school children, recent graduates and those looking for a new career?

In this talent market, we are seeing far greater emphasis upon employer value propositions (EPV) as candidates consider the ‘brand’ that sits behind the job advert. Again, perhaps it’s no surprise that across public services, we have seen a 30% increase in communication and marketing leadership roles becoming available as organisations race to build a stronger internal and external message.

In looking at where aspiring talent can make a career, there is a real compelling story – within asset and estate management, demand has increased by up to 45%. In strategy, demand has increased by more than 50% with growth in HR, finance, operational and broader corporate services leadership roles. These are all careers that should draw the best talent before it finds its way to the commercial sector. But what about transformation and technology roles? Why are we not seeing the growth in leadership numbers that is needed to deliver the transformation required? Where is the motivational narrative to match the lure of a Unilever, Rightmove or Deliveroo?  

And what about the success stories of interim managers in local authorities? I can’t think of a single media story or award ceremony last year that celebrated their success and the amazing contribution they make. There is little to balance the negative and often inaccurate coverage around costs or ‘blame’ articles that a google search will generate. In a sector already struggling to fill key talent gaps and retain corporate memory, this agile and adaptable talent is an essential resource for critical roles, particularly in areas of high burn out such as housing, social care, finance and legal. 

So why not make 2024 the year of telling the positive stories? A year in which we bank these motivational narratives, in the face of the sector’s challenges, to build a more aspirational and diverse talent legacy.

Stories help build connections, break down barriers and create a greater sense of belonging. Acclaimed screen writer Robert McKee argues that stories ‘fulfil a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living – not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience’. It’s time to take the patterns of local government living beyond the sector.

Sally Wilson is a principal consultant within GatenbySanderson’s interim leadership local government practice