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Place shapers wanted

Written by: George Agyemang and Pete John are lead place recruiters at Penna
Published on: 8 Feb 2024

Continuing our reflections and thoughts on the year past and present we’re continuing to see unprecedented change across the public realm and place landscape.  It’s therefore not surprising that demand for leadership talent in this space in 2022 and 2023 was the highest both years.

The perpetual ripples of the pandemic continue to have an impact as we navigate resourcing plans across the national recruitment marketplace. In 2023, the demand for adaptable work options continued to grow with new secondary, employee-centric, legislation enacted to make flexible working the default option for most employers.

Workers now have a greater say over when, where, and how they work. This alone has made a significant impact on all types of public services as they reconsider their asset and property portfolios and strategy to manage costs. The recent Public Accounts Committee report on council debt claims that collectively councils in England carry nearly £100bn of debt. Truly worrying.

Moreover, the continued uncertainty surrounding the direction (literally) of major infrastructure projects, characterised by the HS2 debacle, continues to erode public confidence in the present Government and its strategy and policy decision making in funding both major investment and local government services going forward. There seems to be an increasing level of mistrust as the public sector is asked to deal with complex challenges including broader diversity, sustainability and socio-economic change which are typically wrapped around a broader place-based strategy. This can make it harder for the potential candidates to clearly identify measures of success of how the hiring bodies are performing.

New conversations from candidates now include whether they would be comfortable in pursuing either a role in public services or a move to a new organisation where it is harder to identify its performance and organisational values (as companies flex to survive, not thrive, and accommodate changing economic and demographic demands).

On the brighter side, and with your help and our support, senior place-based roles are currently becoming diverse, inclusive and socially mobile, albeit gradually. It’s incumbent on all of us in the public sector (and private sector) marketplace to lead the response to this agenda and a strong collaborative approach is a prerequisite to achieving success. 

From a recruitment perspective, as we enter 2024 with a sense of optimism in an upturn within this challenging market, it is important  we reflect on some of the trends and challenges that emerged in the previous year and see how the changes in devolution, increased number of combined authorities and new models of delivery have impacted the place talent arena.

As outlined already, a challenging financial landscape coupled with political uncertainty, councils have found themselves in the all too familiar position of having to do more with less. So, what does that mean for recruitment? 

There are many variables which come into play when assessing the current market conditions. Candidates at all levels are becoming increasingly scarce, particularly for interim and permanent place-based roles, and our local authority colleagues will be familiar with the challenges around recruiting to more technical roles.

The executive market has not been too different in that respect. Experienced hires who have been actively looking tend to have several irons in the fire, so an interview process can ill afford to be elongated with various stages. Those who are tentatively looking have needed greater assurances of the direction of travel of an organisation among other things, before fully immersing themselves in a process. After all, years of austerity and underfunding has resulted in several local authorities seeking bold new measures of income generation. Unfortunately, these haven’t always gone to plan, and scrutiny on commercial investments has resulted in staffing changes and political upheaval. 

There is a greater emphasis on attraction and EVP now more than ever, as well as salary benchmarking against other authorities. After all, with finances tight, it has proved useful for authorities to get a sense of what their counterparts – particularly those in the same region – might be offering in terms of remuneration.

 A positive is that these conditions have not halted interest in these positions as we begin to see not only experienced hires, but a new cohort of place directors. Place-based roles still provide some of the most exciting and rewarding opportunities in local government and 2024 will no doubt continue to bring challenge, but also opportunity.

George Agyemang and Pete John are lead place recruiters at Penna – contact them for further information on the place talent