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Is your Mission Impossible?

Written by: Julie Towers - Managing Director at Penna
Published on: 22 Nov 2018

The catchy headline and dynamic graphics of The MJ Achievement Awards 2018 call to action got me thinking (a) where did that year go, is it awards entry time again! And (b) and more importantly are the challenges faced by local government ‘impossible’? As an optimist I always think there’s a way to resolve most things, but the challenges do seem to be piling up in local government and the situation for some councils and services is now well into or beyond critical.

In the private sector these similar problems would often be resolved through saving or making more money, hiring more or different people and skills, mobilising resources differently and identifying and implementing innovative solutions or technology. The solutions would very much be in their hands and they would probably only be limited by their resources, ability and determination. They would be free to take the decisions needed to deliver the outcomes required for their shareholders or owners.

But the public sector are not afforded the same opportunity. The private sector don’t (yet) have to grapple with IR35 or exit pay caps, meaning that resource is hard to come by, expensive when you find it and if you want to exit people, your ability to finance this is limited. They don’t have competition rules that say everyone has to agree if they want to restructure or merge/acquire another organisation. Which authorities are actually going to agree to go unitary - even if the case is a strong financial one.  Does Local Government Secretary, James Brokenshire really think Members and Officers are going to be turkeys that vote for Christmas and come together nicely to agree this with the subsequent job and office loss this would create. Real change always needs real change – and it is very rarely something everyone will agree on  (see MJ 8 November).   The private sector would not ask staff to agree a merger or be sold, nor should they. Why does the Government think that this is a good idea in the public sector? If they want change and efficiency and reduced beurocracy they should encourage pioneers, not seek compromise – there are too many personal agenda’s for that approach to bring about any real change.

The public sector also has to work within pay guidelines that restrict their ability to hire and invest in talent that could make all the difference to the bottom line. How long will talented chief executives or senior managers who are working long and hard to innovate and deliver improved outcomes on restricted pay stay in the sector? Why can’t a Council be open to making its own decisions on pay like the private sector – as long as the bottom line stacks up for that authority surely they should be able to pay the appropriate rate. With such limitations on your levers to make change, it’s clear to see that it’s definitely going to be mission frustrating as a minimum!

With so much regulation and scrutiny and rightful public transparency it must therefore seem ‘impossible’ at times to do the right thing, as at each turn some form of barrier outside of your control emerges. And we haven’t even taken into account the further complexity Brexit, increasing demand particularly in social care and homelessness, increasing citizen expectations and political complexity bring to the job.

If morale and turnover are anything to go by I do think some public sector leaders are definitely deciding the roles are ‘mission impossible’ and voting with their feet. We definitely risk losing some talent to the private sector if we don’t recognise that for doing the impossible there  needs to be the right reward; and if funding continues to be reduced by Government, and then more restrictions are introduced on what you can do to resolve it – then we will definitely be needing all of Tom Cruise’s gadgets and guile to solve this critical mission.

Julie Towers