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Looking into the crystal ball

Written by: Steve Guest is head of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business
Published on: 12 Sep 2019

Over the summer (wow, that came and went way too quickly!), I’ve had the chance to take stock and reflect on where I think the local government recruitment market might be going in the months and years ahead. I don’t get to ‘crystal ballgaze’ often, so I thought I’d share my thinking.

In a similar vein, a few years ago I wrote an article for this very publication predicting that, due to social and political policy drivers, the local government sector would be getting back into the housing market in a big way. I stressed that this focus (after almost 30 years of stagnation) would quickly reveal a skills and experience gap in our workforces and that urgent steps would need to be taken to attract the right skills back into the sector and to start the journey of growing our own talent.

It’s fair to say that the drive for the sector to build houses again (whether within the Housing Revenue Account or otherwise) has certainly come to pass and there are now some pretty innovative approaches out there that begin to address the mammoth task of meeting housing demand. The fixes won’t come overnight, but the sector is in a much better position to deliver now than it has been in years.

I’d even go so far as to say that whether a local authority holds its own housing stock or not, if it isn’t doing something – whether itself or in partnership – to build more houses by this point, then it probably never will. Through a combination of rigorous recruitment processes and home grown talent, professionals with the requisite skills and experience to deliver on this agenda were found (albeit in fierce competition with other sectors and between councils in some instances) and the impact is now being seen. I am often amazed to see the number of cranes in the skyline of the towns and cities I visit when out meeting clients.

House building and wider development is now ‘business as usual’ in terms of the long list of activities local authorities undertake on behalf of their residents and businesses. As a result, my perception is that the great rush to find talent to deliver on this agenda has now become similarly ‘business as usual’.

In recent years, we have seen similar rushes for talented leaders in other disciplines. The ones that immediately spring to mind are senior professional leaders in finance, transformation and digital.

Finance remains a tricky area. Clearly, as the impact of austerity hit (and continues to do so), the demand for credible finance professionals who could also engage and lead at a corporate level is intense. However the reality is that, for whatever reason, there simply aren’t enough finance professionals taking the leap into corporate leadership roles. Competition between councils for the very best s151 officers continues to be acute. It remains unclear to me (and others I speak to) as to where tomorrow’s leadership talent is coming from in this area.

Transformation professionals have been in high demand for just as long, tasked with introducing new systems, processes and cultures to maximise the value of every tax payer pound. Those who offer a track record of successfully delivering and seeing through large scale transformation continue to be in high demand. However, ‘change is the only constant’ really does apply to local government, so as with the house builders and the finance professionals, this demand is also ‘business as usual’ at this stage.

Going beyond the traditional view of transformation, ‘digital’ (and everything that phrase encompasses) is still a work in progress in my view. For some, it appears that digital is nothing more than good IT. For others, it is a fundamentally different approach and outlook on how to operate and how to engage and interact with our internal and external customers and stakeholders. Demand for experienced leaders in this field remains high, but unlike the other professions I mention above, the nature of what employers are looking for in terms of digital leaders is perhaps more nuanced to local context. We haven’t reached that ‘business as usual’ stage in this area yet.

So that’s a quick canter through some of the bigger recruitment trend challenges the sector has been dealing with in recent years.

So, what’s coming next? Where is the next rush going to be? This is where we need to gaze into the crystal ball to some extent. However, it isn’t too hard to make an educated guess, in my view.  Indeed, the Chancellor’s Spending Round speech in the Commons last week gave a very clear steer.

If I were to sum it up in one word, I would say ‘communities’. I know that job titles like ‘head of community services’ or ‘director of community services’ can be vague or a bit of a catch-all, but it also captures the area of local government activity that has arguably seen the least focus and investment in the last decade. Why? because most of the activity in this area has traditionally been discretionary and in the face of unprecedented resource reductions and rising demand, these services were the most vulnerable to cuts. However, after almost 10 years of austerity, the impact of those cuts is being felt on the ground.

A quick scan of the landscape – from national news through to local political party manifestos – shows that these renewed areas of focus would traditionally sit within the ‘communities’ remit. Nationally, the current discourse and polarisation around Brexit (and analysis of the root causes that led to 52% of voters opting to leave in 2016) tells us that community cohesion, capacity building and aspiration, are all areas that are crying out for concerted effort.

The rise in youth violence and the reduction in provision around youth services and diversionary activity for young people are often debated and views on cause and effect can vary, but at this stage there is a clear admission and consensus that the two are linked. There are more examples, but these are the most apparent in my view.

What kind of leaders will this agenda require? Firstly, I would contend that many of those who were leading on this agenda a decade ago have moved on, so as we saw with housing and development professionals, we are going to have a skills and experience gap to sort out for the short and longer term. Secondly, we must accept that this is a very broad and wide ranging series of issues. Given how multifaceted the challenges are, a response requires a multi-agency, cross-sector approach. There also will be very few quick wins.

For me, the key skill requirement therefore will be one of relationship building – be that cross-organisational engagement, political engagement, effective multi-agency partnership working or sincere community engagement. Little will be achieved in isolation and seeing positive impact will take time, so securing buy-in while managing expectations will be critical. That said, our leaders will need to offer the credibility and track record of working effectively with this wide range of stakeholders and making a meaningful difference as a consequence. Generic leadership skills will be front and centre.

Despite the amount of air time Brexit is occupying currently (and regardless of what happens, the fall-out will continue to do so for the foreseeable future), it is clear that the need to invest in communities is rising up the national and local political agenda. Indeed, the local investment has already begun for some local authorities and this will only grow over time.

There is a very big job to do. We need to be ready to ensure the sector has access to the right professional and leadership talent to deliver. We need to get started now.

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

Steve Guest