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Let’s plan ahead

Written by: Steve Guest is director of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business
Published on: 2 May 2024

Having witnessed a shrinking of the wider local government workforce over the last 15 years I’ve worked as a recruiter, there are some learning points I have identified that I think need to be actively considered when further change is on the horizon.

It isn’t hyperbole to suggest local government as a sector is facing challenges of scope and scale unlike anything experienced in its history. Whether we’re talking about the financial pressures local authorities are facing, through to the increased levels of demand that council services are experiencing, given the cost of living crisis, the housing market or health waiting lists, the amount of pressure on local government resources (financial or otherwise) is unprecedented.

In addition, the sector is facing a workforce crisis brought on by a range of factors, including an ageing workforce, a smaller workforce (I’ll come back to that), a more competitive marketplace, the  impact of the pandemic, and perhaps even overall perceptions of local government as a career choice. The phrase ‘perfect storm’ is probably over-used at this point, but it’s a fair description of the circumstances as I see them. 

Whatever the outcome of the next General Election, my read of the situation is that the resource pressures local government faces are not going to change positively any time soon and there are no straightforward solutions – particularly given the wider economic circumstances of the country. Equally, the demand pressures on local government services show no sign of receding any time soon.

Therefore, the likelihood of local authorities needing to find further savings and efficiencies feels highly likely. Indeed, nearly all local authorities I work with may have balanced this year’s budget, but they all have significant savings to find in the medium term. So difficult decisions are ahead of us – whether that’s happening now or in the months and years ahead.

Of course, local government is no stranger to having to find ways of doing things differently, to innovate and to take very tough decisions. There is no low hanging fruit anymore, so we’re looking at true transformation or doing things differently (probably in partnership).

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the importance of risk mitigation when undertaking restructures. It may not always be the case, but in many circumstances restructures that are financially led often mean a reduction in headcount. A very difficult time for those who depart, but also a challenging time for those who remain – including those who find themselves managing and leading more people and a wider range of services.

What this can often lead to are individuals who are well regarded and proficient in their professional sphere of expertise suddenly finding themselves in a position of leading and managing professionals and services of which they have little or no knowledge. At the same time, they are being elevated up into what are forced to be more strategic leadership positions (because their breadth of control has suddenly become much wider) of which they have little or no experience.

I’m describing a step up not only in seniority but in breadth and scope of responsibility. That isn’t an easy ask for anyone – it can be as stark as being a very proficient expert in one service area one day, then shortly thereafter being responsible for a whole range of services and a larger workforce who are looking to you for leadership (and answers).

Given how tight resources are these days, it is inevitable that we will see more instances of what I’m describing above. Therefore, my question is, what can we do to mitigate the risks around this – for the organisation and those tasked with taking on additional responsibility?

Critically, we need to plan ahead. As a sector we’ve talked about succession and workforce planning for decades. The evidence suggests that we haven’t done a particularly good job at turning talk into meaningful action.

There are interventions out there, however in my day-to-day work it is quite evident that exposing future leaders to corporate leadership experience isn’t particularly prevalent. Crucially for the individuals concerned, there is an element of not knowing what they don’t know.

There are some quick wins, but these need to be balanced with structured investment in our future leaders.

Day-to-day demand pressures aside, the importance of creating the space for our future leaders to shadow and deputise is critical. We learn by doing, so ensuring our future leaders get that exposure to wider, corporate issues and personalities is critical. Whether that’s attendance at corporate leadership team meetings, cross-organisational working groups or peer challenge prospects, the opportunities to get involved need to be visible and accessible. The importance of understanding that leadership is as much about relationships and convening others as it is about making decisions is really key. Defaulting to professional expertise to resolve problems isn’t always the answer in that corporate leadership space – there are often wider considerations and levers at play.

Equally, exposure to the political dynamics of an organisation can be highly variable for middle managers from one organisation to the next, so having the opportunity to interact with senior elected members is just as important in developing the right toolkit for our future leaders.

There is also a role for more formal training and development. Building on the idea people may not know what they don’t know, it is important to ensure exposure and access to networks that can widen the horizons and perspectives of our future leaders is facilitated. This also means the importance of access to effective coaches and mentors who can encourage individuals to reflect on their development needs.

Structured learning for aspiring future leaders is also a must. The investment is certainly well worth the cost and at Solace we are proud to work with our strategic partners to offer a wider range of interventions for local government officers at all stages of their career, including Springboard for rising stars, AMPlify which provides a significant development opportunity for groups of staff who are currently under-represented within senior leadership levels, Total Leadership for aspiring chief executives and Ignite for those already in that chief executive role.

And it is important to act now. When the time comes that we need our leaders in waiting to be ready to step up, it will be too late. Therefore, making that investment in effective workforce planning and delivery has never been more important. 

Steve Guest is director of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business