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For the love of the game

Written by: Julie Towers is managing director of Penna
Published on: 14 Jul 2022

Last month, Inner Circle Consulting and The MJ hosted a webinar titled ‘Love Local Government’, which we at Penna were delighted to support.

Local government employs more than two million people and, despite cuts in funding and pressures brought on by inflation, has delivered services throughout the pandemic and supported the most vulnerable. Local authorities uniquely have the democratic mandate to shape and deliver for their place and yet when we were all clapping for the NHS during lockdown, most of the population had no idea that a significant number of those supporting them were in fact from local government. So why is this? Why does the community have such a limited view of the sector and why is it not loved in the same way as the NHS?

The discussion, hosted by Chris Twigg of Inner Circle Consulting and Heather Jameson, editor of The MJ, set out to address these and other key questions around restoring the trust between local and central government, facilitating the levelling up agenda, and around building more collaborative teams who can advance the overarching objective of local government serving these communities.

Martin Reeves, chief executive of Coventry City Council, started by emphasising the impact the sector has on every aspect of life. He reminded us much of the work local government does is not visible to the public eye, which makes it difficult to measure the impact it has every day. He also explained that despite having more than 500 service lines, local government fails to showcase what it truly does because those within it have not managed to establish their brand effectively, saying: ‘We are not the best marketers and social influencers, and so we cannot explain well the depth of what we do. That’s why we aren’t loved!’

Nazeya Hussain, previously the executive director at RB Kingston upon Thames Council said: ‘Local government is a complex business to be part of, and that makes its relationship with the centre even more complicated.’ She agreed with Martin on the need for better branding and stressed the need to attract from a diverse range of backgrounds – and that more success stories of diverse people in the sector were needed to empower and inspire others to join it.

I offered some practical suggestions to help local government establish itself as a brand, and be seen as a go to place for careers. It would probably take a significant budget and holistic brand approach to create the kind of impact that, for example, the Army’s recruiting campaign gets – but why couldn’t the sector do this? Or as a quick fix why don’t all local authorities work together to create a central careers portal to showcase the many career options available; or use a consistent strap line on all the advertising done to promote ‘Brand Local Government’. I also flagged up the limited investment made by  local authorities into brand marketing for recruitment – councils have come a long way on social media in communicating with their residents and celebrating their work, but where’s the attraction and talent messaging to secure the future talent? Local government has more career paths than any other sector, the breadth is unrivalled and the purpose beyond compare. But only those in it know it – it’s the others we need to inspire.

Chief executive and co-founder at Public Practice, Pooja Agrawal, talked about the need to build trust between young people and local government. She emphasised the importance of culture when working in the sector. While the private sector has managed to catch up by increasing pay and benefits, local government has taken the brunt of austerity and lost its attractiveness as a great place to work. Pooja said: ‘We must find a way to position local government so the people feel they can learn and develop themselves.’

Dr Imandeep Kaur, the co-founder and director at Civic Square, had a bold approach, stating that local government is far behind in the climate crisis as well as issues relating to food and security and planning. This in turn creates practical implications for the people within it and their wellbeing, as well as the way the sector is perceived as a collective. She felt ‘local government needs to rebrand itself beyond itself; it needs to stop thinking about itself’, shifting the focus to issues of care and human rights, and being able to leverage local networks and structures to do this effectively.

Sandra Perez, managing consultant at Inner Circle Consulting, highlighted the exciting nature of jobs in the public sector and the ability to have a direct voice and impact in a community. She acknowledged that while there is a depth of talent and passion in the sector, there is also frustration of systems, and a complete lack of collaboration and confidence.

‘In order for us to be able to deliver inclusive services, we cannot depend on the skills and resources of one person’, Sandra said, while also making it clear we needed to make the system function in a more collaborative and collective way, and not to understate the importance of increasing diversity – not only cultural and social, but also diversity of thought and skills to those currently in the sector.

It was a privilege to be part of this discussion – it’s a long overdue one and I hope others will engage as it builds. The love for local government and the passion for reform in the sector was shared by the panel – so let’s keep spreading the love! 

Julie Towers is managing director of Penna