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The key to a sustainable workforce

Written by: Mark Bearn is an Associate Director at Tile Hill
Published on: 25 Apr 2024

An enduring concern for senior leaders in local authorities has been workforce resilience and skills shortages, with a particular focus on the difficulty of hiring at head of service level and above.


A recent survey of HR professionals in the sector found that the ability to attract, retain and develop future talent is being negatively impacted by the lack of a defined employee value proposition (EVP) for individual organisations. It’s also clear many local authorities are not investing in the internal leadership development programmes that could help them ‘grow their own’.


Combining an effective EVP with a powerful learning and development programme can boost retention and support effective succession planning.


So what does a good EVP look like and why is it so important?


According to HR consultants Lets Talk Talent an ‘EVP is the heart, mind and soul of what it’s like to work for and be part of your organisation. It tells the world what they can expect of you and what you can expect from them. It reaches out and embraces all of the reasons that great people should work for you and not for someone else. It captures your uniqueness; warts-and-all.’


In the post-pandemic world, we are seeing huge shifts in what people want from work, how they want to interact with work and their expectations of employers. The cost of living crisis has caused people to question the benefit of pension provisions in the long term, over higher salaries in the short term. People want greater flexibility; and hybrid working but also a greater emphasis on portfolio careers, fractional leadership and interim employment. We also know people are more driven than ever to work for socially purposed organisations. However, there is still a disconnect when people consider a career in public service and their interest in local government, with many favouring the NHS or central government. Local government can offer the most amazing and the most varied careers, where people can make a tangible difference on a daily basis, and the EVP of the sector and of individual organisations is a critical part of changing this narrative.


With shifting drivers from candidates and a reducing pool of candidates to select from, the ability to stand out to the best talent is critical. Unfortunately, the findings from research and our own discussions with HR professionals and chief executives is that councils are not doing enough to clearly develop and articulate the features that will allow them to attract talent into these roles.


The Local Government Association has received funding from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to create a single narrative for the sector to dispel some of the myths that exist around careers in local government. Yet, with more than 300 authorities and 800 different roles, it isn’t easy to create a single brand and it may be counter-productive to have a homogenous brand for all roles, in all councils, across all regions. What has come out of this research, and the pilot in the North East, further reinforces the brilliant careers people can have in local government, and the advertising campaign has centred around four key pillars of social impact, career variety, career progression potential and flexibility of work. The anecdotal feedback from this pilot is that council websites have seen increased traffic and social links have seen a huge increase in engagement and clicks.


The importance of a national brand that attracts people to the sector cannot be understated. However, when looking at more senior roles, standing out in a competitive market requires each organisation to be very clear on their own EVP, and why someone should choose to work for them over a neighbouring authority. Especially when looking at talent that already exists in the sector, and definitely when considering those roles that are currently defined as ‘hard to fill’.


But just having a good attraction strategy is not enough to address this problem. A 2022 Report by the Learning and Work Institute suggested the UK is ‘sleepwalking to stagnation in skills’ due to a significant decline in employee training spend. Data points out only 4.6% of the local government workforce is under the age of 25 and, within that number, only a few expect to stay in the sector for longer than four years. This presents a worrying picture for the future of the sector and suggests workforce planning and retention strategies are a priority.


An EVP should encapsulate this and articulate how a defined learning and development programme will benefit those who work in a council. Data also highlights that staff who feel they are being invested in and can see future career opportunities within an organisation are less likely to leave.


A joint report by PwC and the County Councils’ Network concluded there is a clear need to enhance the offer of working in the sector by addressing career development opportunities and our recent survey findings support this. 


Furthermore, their report highlights the need for future leaders to be identified and supported and for core leadership capabilities to be embedded in each local authority leadership team.


Clearly, given the challenging financial position that councils are in, paying higher salaries or finding the money to invest in large development programmes isn’t easy. However, the counter argument is that if a council isn’t investing in its staff then someone else will – you may lose your best people; potentially ‘sleepwalking into skills stagnation’ – and that is not an option for the sector. Local government needs and deserves the best talent and the most impassioned individuals.


Addressing this, therefore, will require a sustained focus from senior leaders, as well as HR and communications professionals. Early engagement with elected politicians on the importance of effective talent management is critical. You should challenge your recruitment partners to talk about how they will help you stand out to exceptional talent.


An EVP is not just how you attract people to your organisation, it is how you excite and inspire them to be the best version of themselves, and how you support them through formal and informal training to grow. In isolation, a good attraction campaign that isn’t supported by a defined leadership programme will only work for a short period. Conversely, a leadership development programme that is not properly articulated to internal and external talent will also have limited success.


Connecting them, linking to your values and your purpose will make a positive difference both to your organisation and the sector as a whole. n