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Written by: Rebecca Davis is chief executive of  West Midlands Employers
Published on: 27 Jul 2023

With every challenge we face in the local government workforce, there is an opportunity. Local government and the wider public sector can be an innovation hot house – we’ve seen in recent years how creative we are when we unite around a common challenge. We are all feeling the impact of recruitment and retention issues, what used to be a list of three or four ‘hard to fill roles’ now covers nearly all our roles. We have an ageing workforce and a skills gap looming, coupled with a financial environment that makes it hard for us to compete with the private sector on salary alone.

The truth is, we all know money isn’t going to be forthcoming within the sector to solve these workforce challenges. The ability to mirror the NHS with a National Workforce Strategy would be problematic and be nothing more than an aspirational strategy, at the heart of that is the fact local government consists of more than 300 sovereign organisations – while we ‘feel and act’ as one workforce, the reality is we are not and the scale of the sector means we need a disaggregated response.

We saw during the pandemic many organisations experience longer-term changes to the way we operate and deliver services as a byproduct of the national and local response.   Taking the same mindset and changing our thinking can dramatically improve our ability as a sector to address workforce challenges.

Applying a #SameJobDifferentThinking mindset, we can make longer-term changes that will revolutionise our sector and there are three things that can make a big difference; First, we need to stabilise our permanent workforce for future generations, turning off the tap of talent leaving and creating a strong brand and awareness of our services nationally and locally to attract new talent. Secondly, we need to reduce our reliance on agencies and respond quicker to labour market trends. Thirdly we need  data, insight and evidence on our sector, much of what we are experiencing now as a sector could have been avoided with better long-term workforce planning and benchmarking of data.

Some of the exciting programs of work we are doing at West Midlands Employers include:

1. Turning off the talent tap and attracting new talent

In the West Midlands we launched the West Midlands Regional Workforce Strategy in 2022 in partnership with our 32 shareholder councils. This set out a long-term response to addressing our workforce challenges and this year we have committed more than £100,000 to supporting an impressive range of recruitment and retention initiatives through our Workforce Priority Fund. A priority for this year will be taking our Local Government Careers Guide to a wider audience through a large promotion campaign across different media channels, to draw in new talent to the sector. We have also procured a new talent acquisition platform for the region that 15 councils will be using and launching in April 2024, with our partner Tribepad, to transform their employer brand.

We have shaped some exciting initiatives and our #SameJobDifferentThinking approach will be elevated to a large conference on 24 October in Birmingham where we are looking at a whole system approach to recruitment and workforce.  We have some incredible speakers all looking at the different components of retention, culture and recruitment practices and it will cumulate in a live ‘SWARM’ to generate more collective ideas to transform what we do. This is open to all those in the local government family.

2. Responding to trends

Workforce trends are often symptomatic of wider societal and financial trends and we need to get on the ‘front foot’ of those trends.  In recent years we’ve seen a huge increase in the reliance of agency use across the sector, and councils in the West Midlands region launched an innovative solution to that by creating a single supplier framework and service: WMTemps. Over time this framework offers a series of benefits to councils, including a generous rebate, no charges for converting from temp to perm [including KPI’s to ensure more temps move into permanent roles as a success criteria] that can transform how we fund workforce improvement and keep money within the sector, working for us. 

There is a symbiotic relationship between our permanent and temporary workforce and the two need to be managed in that way.  Councils need to challenge the long-held constructs they have of agency provision and we’ve been trailblazers for that in the West Midlands.

3. Evidence, data and insight

As a partnership of regional employers we’ve been working in partnership to shape a National Workforce Data Service that will launch later this year. We have agreed a framework for engaging with every council in the UK and worked in partnership with stakeholders at The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Local Government Association. The service will be on a par with the NHS National Workforce Data Service and will give us some ‘quick win’ insights to our workforce and longer-term ability to see trends, model hypothesis and benchmark individual performance. 

There is a commitment the service will produce an annual national ‘State of the Workforce’ report and each region will do their own local variation on this, taking account of the local skills and labour market. It will transform our ability to really understand our sector.

There is so much opportunity to create long-term change and we’ve been excited to be at the forefront of that – making a Regional impact, but feeling the difference locally.

Rebecca Davis is chief executive of  West Midlands Employers