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Time for a facelift?

Written by: Nicola Chiverton is assistant consultant at Solace
Published on: 15 Aug 2019

I rolled my eyes, sighed and felt deflated as an uninformed acquaintance said to me: ‘But what do they do, really? Apart from empty the bins and not fix potholes?’ I managed to refrain from shaking some sense into them and calmly explained the wide range of public services that a local authority is responsible for delivering.

This exchange got me thinking back to a conversation I recently had with a group of senior managers from a number of different councils about their view that local government is in dire need of an image overhaul; especially when it comes to recruitment and retention. On chatting to them, they were keen to point out that first and foremost, they are public servants. They chose their careers because they want to make a difference to peoples’ day to day lives and ‘delivering first class public services’ is what motivates them to get up and go to work each day. However, they often feel like the unsung heroes for their efforts with little, or sometimes negative, acknowledgement from the public they serve.

Much of the negativity surrounding local government could perhaps be traced back to the scrutiny the sector, and in particular its senior level workforce, came under from certain sections of the press when the recession hit a decade ago. Whatever the beginnings, it is a saddening truth that, for many, the perception of local government public service is in stark contrast to say, the NHS or Armed Forces, where there is such pride and recognition in choosing either as a career path.

So, what can be done to ensure that, as a sector we can rise to the challenge of attracting the highest calibre individuals to create the leaders of tomorrow? We’ve all seen the adverts about ‘being the best’ and unfortunately there are no such creative campaigns, on a national level, for working in local government. So how does the sector position itself as an employer of choice against such stiff competition?

It is clear that local government needs to respond to the changing world to be in a position to compete for and retain talent. This isn’t easy in a world where pay has been frozen and there has been some trimming of benefits but that doesn’t mean it is insurmountable. Local government roles are a great career choice for the workforce of the future. Yes, the chance of getting rich may be slim but local government public service provides a great diversity of jobs, career progression and personal development.

What may sometimes be lacking in salary, when compared to the private sector, can be made up for in the (often referred to) psychological contract, ie – working conditions, leave, retirement benefits, pensions and family friendly policies etc. But is this what the workforce of tomorrow are looking for? Are they intrinsically or extrinsically motivated when it comes to their career choices?

While some organisations may focus on promoting the traditional benefits of working in local government, some forward thinking councils are aware that the next generation of public servants are fundamentally different to the workforce of the past. Millennials entering local government careers bring their own set of perspectives and a different set of job expectations that they want their employer to accommodate. Professor Peter Hawkins’ recent leadership report highlighted that ‘millennials thrive on feedback, continuous learning and empowerment. They wish to be believed in by others and for their work to be purposeful and contributing to a greater whole’. So it would seem that as a group they are likely to seek out employment in a sector that best fulfils such values.

According to Dr Lolita D Gray in the American Society for Public Administration’s PA Times, serving public interest, affecting social change and shaping policies that impact society are key drivers for generations entering the workforce… so is it these intrinsic motivators that local government organisations need to focus on when attracting talent?

The good news is that despite the ongoing battle against public perception, there are key signs that millennials are seeing the value in local government careers and don’t seem to be too discouraged from seeking careers in the public sector. Solace apprenticeship and graduate programmes continue to grow in popularity year on year. This, coupled with the development of others through national programmes including Springboard, Total Leadership and Ignite, would indicate that overall the sector looks to be in good hands.

So while we generally have an enduring admiration for those ‘in uniform’ which may be difficult to compete with in some instances, perhaps the most important strategy local government can adopt is the willingness to accept change, take a step away from the status quo and identify and promote those aspects of local government public service that truly drive the next generation of workers.

Nicola Chiverton is assistant consultant at Solace