The year 2022 saw unprecedentedly high levels of vacancies for Monitoring Officers (MO) and Deputy Monitoring Officers (DMO), with 58 MO roles being advertised -–more than the previous three years combined. This has resulted in a major battle for legal professional talent in an already challenging market – with senior legal recruitment fast becoming one of the toughest markets in local government.
As the trend continues into 2023, I discussed the very real and growing challenge of MO recruitment with a panel of experts, and looked at how the profession, HR and recruiters can mitigate and resolve these matters.
Our panel consisted of Helen Edwards, president of Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and MO at West Midlands Combined Authority; Mark Hynes, Director of Governance at Waltham Forest LBC; Suki Binjal, an experienced interim MO, and independent HR consultant Sue Williams.
Training and personal development
Year on year reductions in training and networking budgets have restricted development and progression opportunities. With Covid putting a focus on delivery, it’s clear talent progression has been slowed. With increased remote working, learning on the job is no longer such a powerful tool. Councils should revisit succession planning, and create clear and transparent progression opportunities.
However, tight budgets should not prevent organisations and line managers from encouraging their teams to actively increase their knowledge, particularly around key areas such as governance. There are many online networking opportunities and free events from professional bodies such as LLG for aspirant MOs and DMOs to access, and they should also take the time to attend and learn from council meetings.
It was encouraging to hear that this year LLG is launching a programme for aspiring MOs and Directors of Legal called ‘Inspire’, which will include elements of training, mentoring, and networking to increase participant skillsets and better equip talent. Penna will be actively supporting this new programme, as the future talent pipeline it will create is essential in combating the issue of too many DMOs not feeling ready to move to MO status.
With so many MO vacancies hiring organisations must approach the market with a high degree of realism. Prospective candidates can be picky about what they apply for – well-publicised governance issues across local government have resulted in nervousness around selecting the right opportunity as their first MO role.
Recent experience also shows that organisations with governance challenges are reluctant to consider step-up candidates, further depleting the talent pools for experienced MOs from an interim and permanent perspective. In some cases, the salaries on offer are not sufficient to attract sideways moves from seasoned and experienced MOs. Market supplements, while sometimes proving a key differential, are not necessarily the answer either.
Organisations must be more willing to take on aspirant talent or review their remuneration levels to match their brief and context. Or, they must be open to hiring for potential, with a planned development package.
A seat at the top table
Many MO and Director of Legal roles have been diluted into third-tier roles, with the absence of a clear career path. The panel were aligned that there should be parity between s151 and MO roles, and not have the MO reporting into s151 as can often be the case. Our panel felt the MO roles should report into the Chief Executive, with councils adopting a more strategic approach to governance to allow MOs to grow.
With so many serving legal professionals now having their heads turned by a more lucrative and buoyant interim market, the panel felt this was increasingly important.
In a tough market, organisations must have a clear employer value proposition that will stand them apart and attract high calibre talent. Culture and values are increasingly important, as is equality, diversity and inclusion, promoting genuine flexible working options and progression opportunities.
We need to work together to change the narrative and make it more attractive. Being an MO is a genuinely rewarding job, where you can make a difference, carry great influence and deliver on big jobs such as large-scale regeneration projects.
Several panel members felt a need to move away from the ‘Monitoring Officer’ name as it could be perceived as traditional and boring, failing to do the role justice. Changing the narrative may also make local government more attractive to commercial sector legal professionals, with statistics showing that large amounts leave the public sector within two years of starting. More needs to be done to ensure they land and remain within the sector, such as wraparound support, or the undertaking of a diploma in local government law for those transitioning.
Finally, there was some debate as to whether the MO needs to be professionally qualified, as there are currently some strong MOs who are not legally qualified but have a strong political and strategic capability to allow them to do the job. The difficulty is that the role is often Director of Legal, with MO within the scope. It is rarely a standalone role.
As the market continues to grow tougher, this may be a point worth future consideration.
Ben Cox is director, executive search at Penna