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Self-harm or self-purpose?

Written by: Ben Cox - associate director to the public sector executive recruitment team at Penna
Published on: 31 Jan 2019

A local government career is both complex and rewarding. But it’s not for everyone. There is no question that a career in local government today looks and feels very different to that of five years ago and a completely different orbit from 20 years ago. For many, in considering whether to stay within or move into the sector from a purely ‘head’ based and objective perspective the attraction has diminished significantly – indeed, one could view a role in local government as a subtle form of self-harm.

Over the years, the pull factors – a career for life, a final salary pension scheme, status and easy access to resources have disappeared with each new round of budget cuts and serial belt tightening. A professional bureaucracy, where employees felt secure in the structure, enjoyed respect for their professional status and felt valued for their exercise of judgement, has given way to significant challenge and with it a far greater focus on commerciality, entrepreneurialism, managing risk and individual accountability. This resultant transparency and spotlight may discomfort some professionals brought up to exercise the mystery of their skills out of public view.

Fear of the spotlight and the transparency of decision making has left many senior professionals and would-be managers thinking twice about a senior career in local government. It also represents a big challenge for those moving from the commercial sector where success is straightforwardly and sharply measured on the month by month churn of the number at the bottom right hand corner of a spread sheet, rather than a mix of explicit and implicit success factors which characterise today’s local government.

However, when all is said and done, there is still a clear pull for those people with strong service and customer values and a genuine passion for delivering public services and gaining satisfaction and self-purpose from improving the lives of residents – the ‘heart’.

At one level the complexity (and arguably the reward) of a career in local government derives from the multiplicity of bottom lines – the day to day variety. It is not sufficient to work to budgets. There are a range of quantitative and qualitative targets to hit with numerous explicit key performance indicators to satisfy. Even so, success can elude even the most able. Those rising to Head of Service and beyond, where there is a requirement for far more political sensitivity, as well as those transferring into local government at a senior level, find themselves tested against unstated or implicit targets, which are far harder to navigate than tangible performance indicators.

Looked at in another way success in the highest levels of local government is down to an ability to manage ambiguity and navigate situations where there is often an absence of clarity. This arises in part because local government is about rationing scarce resources not about selling services to anyone who can pay. Local government needs to be more business-like and commercial in its outlook but it is not like business.

Ambiguity and lack of clarity also arise because rationing is a political exercise and not simply an exercise in numbers – democracy is a flawed system, but it’s the best we have. In a system where there are three value sets – political, managerial and professional – and the absence of a common lexicon, it is inevitable that challenges emerge.

The key may lie in the increasing politicisation of senior managers, alongside managerial nous exhibited by leading politicians. If we are seeing a coming together or melding of attitudes and behaviours at the most senior levels in local government, then we may be moving towards a different, but more intelligible landscape for individuals upon which to develop careers.

Success will increasingly be likely to be determined not so much by what is done but the way that it’s done. We know that customer expectations and financial challenges have risen and continue to rise. This means that the basic service – the work – is increasingly taken as a given and that satisfaction is determined by the way in which the service was delivered – surprise and delight features.

So what does this mean for those seeking a senior appointment in local government? It tells us that individuals need to be able to seamlessly walk in the shoes of professional and managerial colleagues, while maintaining empathy with political imperatives. It also tells us that individuals need to be able to navigate their way through issues and challenges with a different sort of compass – one that is increasingly commercial and yet still sensitive to the unsaid and implicit.

Given the challenges and complexity facing senior local government careers, those that continue to be drawn to and succeed in local government will need high levels of self-purpose and a clear understanding of the importance of the softer skills. Strong values, customer empathy and a passion for delivering excellent outcomes for residents fortunately remain at the heart of this.

Ben Cox is associate director to the public sector executive recruitment team at Penna

Ben Cox