A fresh approach can calm the crisis

Written by: Jessica Mullinger
Published on: 3 Aug 2023

The current recruitment and retention crisis in local government is widely documented and there is gathering evidence of a broad range of interventions that can help bridge the skills gap.  In recent weeks, in an article written for The MJ, Swati Bisht-Rawat, head of talent, performance and innovation at Westminster City Council, talked about the importance of innovation in this regard. She provided an excellent overview of a range of ways HR and OD teams can ensure innovative approaches to recruitment and retention policy and practice.

Often, knowing what to do is only half the battle. Knowing how to do it can sometimes be the challenging part. Bisht-Rawat suggests trailblazing talent acquisition and innovation-infused skills development can make a real difference, and luckily there are already some outstanding examples to learn from in the sector.

‘Growing your own’ is a concept very familiar to Solace in Business. As our surplus profits have a charitable purpose, we can’t always offer competitive enough salaries to attract experienced staff, so we recruit based on skills, attitude and potential; training members of our team internally, through our Solace Academy programme. Is this trailblazing talent acquisition? Or could we go a step further to really innovate? We have seen some real success using this method, but we can’t be complacent and need to remain open to learning how we can take things to the next level.

Central Bedfordshire Council set up their Place Academy in 2018, to tackle the national shortage of experienced town planners. The programme is now broader, encompassing other place-based roles like highways, building control and environment, and they have so far ‘grown’ 29 trainees, who are now operating successfully in various roles across the council. The initiative attracts candidates who do not necessarily have direct experience or relevant qualifications and uses the Apprenticeship Levy, NVQs and internal training to develop them into fully trained place professionals. The council has links with a number of universities and provides a supportive environment for trainees to gain their qualifications, while learning on the job. Nurturing a diverse workforce is a key consideration, so there are a variety of learning routes to suit applicants from a range of backgrounds and learning styles.

The Place Academy, in my opinion, is trailblazing. It encompasses the use of Government funded qualifications, multi-disciplinary training, academic partnerships, a supportive and flexible working environment and a keen focus on diversity. The success of the programme was recognised at last month’s edition of The MJ Awards, where the team won the gong for Workforce Optimisation, with judges stating the programme was ‘a truly sustainable model of delivery that could be replicated across local government’. The team at Central Bedfordshire have also been nominated for Best Innovation in Smarter Working at the Local Government Association Workforce Awards in November.

Sticking with place-based challenges in recruitment and retention, another trailblazing initiative, in my view, is Public Practice’s Associate Programme. Public Practice, led by CEO Pooja Agrawal, is a social enterprise recruiting mid-career level built-environment professionals, and placing them in local authorities for 12-month+ placements (with 90% of these individuals continuing to work in the public sector post-placement based on 2019-2021 data). Their mission is to improve the quality, equality and sustainability of places for everyone by building the public sector’s capability to shape places for the better.

One of the key ingredients to the programme’s success is attracting individuals from outside the public sector, by selling the benefits of working in local government, as well as educating people about the range of interesting roles and opportunities available. For those of us within the sector these benefits and opportunities are often obvious but, as we know, to an outsider the attraction (and the breadth and scale of what local government does) is not always as clear. Over the last five years the programme has attracted more than 2,700 applicants with more than 90% of them working in the private sector at the time of application. One of the programme’s applicants stated they wouldn’t have applied for a public sector job without Public Practice, and that the initiative makes local government jobs accessible.

A further cornerstone of the programme is the on the job training and support applicants receive during placement. Public Practice gives individuals the tools, training and support to navigate the complex landscape of local government, which is essential in order to make a success of the placement and maximise likelihood of retention within the sector.

In March, Public Practice received a £1m funding boost from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to further expand the programme opening up to local authorities in all regions of England for the first time. To date the programme has placed 296 professionals in 78 local authorities across England.

At Solace, our focus is supporting the sector to close the skills gap within senior leadership teams, but this cannot be achieved without significant time and energy invested further upstream. There are lots of initiatives already making a difference and although innovation is certainly one of the tools to support us on this journey, there is also a place for sharing knowledge and learning from others.

There are projects and initiatives you can learn from or utilise straight away, which could have an immediate, positive impact on your workforce strategy. 

Jessica Mullinger is director of interim management at Solace in Business

If you are interested in Central Bedfordshire Council’s Place Academy and would like to find out more, email theplaceacademy@centralbedfordshire.gov.uk

 If you are a local authority and would like to learn more about the Public Practice Associate Programme, you can book a call with the partnerships manager, Alex Govier via Alex.Govier@publicpractice.org.uk. If you are a potential applicant, you can find out more at www.publicpractice.org.uk (and you can catch the team at the Solace Summit in Birmingham on 19 October).