What price experience?

Written by: Frazer Thouard is a partner with GatenbySanderson’s local government practice.
Published on: 8 Sep 2022

One of the questions that most frequently comes up client briefing sessions, be it with a chief officer or elected member, is ‘will we attract someone already operating at this level?’ In most cases, my immediate challenge is to query why someone already operating at this level is so essential. While I don’t intend to undermine the value that like-for-like operational experience can bring, a better starting point for me is to understand what clients are aiming to achieve from the appointee and why role parity is such a priority or even condition of the person specification.

It comes as no surprise to hear that, as Gordon McFarlane, the president of the Public Services People Managers’ Association noted in last week’s edition of The MJ: ‘The rising cost of living is taking chunks out of everybody’s monthly budget’. For me, the key word here is ‘everybody’. Putting this fact into the context of the above question, what price must local authorities now pay for experience? Assuming the desired candidate is already within a local authority, that their wellbeing is being well cared for and they are satisfying their desire to deliver social value, what premium is required to attract candidates ‘already operating at this level’? And what might be the social penalty in terms of increasing diversity at the most senior levels?

So that leaves us exploring the ‘why’ part of the question. What will you get from a candidate already operating at this level, that you won’t from a candidate stepping into the role for the first time? Is it for their experience of having previously dealt with tomorrow’s challenges earlier in their career? Is it for their already formed leadership skills and approach? Is it for their technical knowledge? Is it for the perceived assurance this may give to those around them, during the challenging years ahead? Is it to minimise any ‘risk’ associated with the appointment?

While there is, of course, value in all of the above, there remain questions to answer. Has anyone yet got the demonstrable experience required to successfully lead an organisation through the recovery phase following a global pandemic? Fourteen years on from the Great Recession of 2008-09, are today’s financial challenges the same? Have we ever seen an energy crisis as we are seeing today? You could debate the fuel crises of 2005, 2007, and 2012 forced organisations to act differently, but not nearly to the scale we are about to see.

I would argue that, in many ways, there is no one yet completely ready for the challenges ahead. No one yet has all of the answers, or experience for that matter, to deal with what comes next. What we do know is workforces are changing – agile or hybrid working working; technology and automation; engagement and effective decision making; speed to deliver new solutions all require new thinking and fresh approaches.  In many ways, it’s the behavioural skills of effective leadership, resilience, communication and ability to think creatively and make transformative decisions that will determine success rather than more technical role specification experience. For many roles, there will be talent that can deliver these skills at less of a financial premium to organisations, especially in this period of wage inflation.

In our work across the sector nationally, we have seen that for many officers and chief officers working with local authorities, the pandemic accelerated their development, and exposure, significantly.

As chief executives and their fellow corporate teams and statutory post holders responded to Covid, many of their deputies stepped up and into much more senior roles than they had done before. We saw deputy Section 151 Officers, deputy monitoring officers, assistant director’s and functional director’s all taking on the responsibility of delivering the best possible services for the communities that they serve in a time of crisis. And very many excelled and succeeded.

As noted in last week’s cover article, District Councils’ Network members already acknowledge that ‘recruitment of new staff and retaining existing officers is a growing problem’. This is a sector full of talent, full of ambition, full of ideas and innovation – and now full of experience. Let’s look beyond current postholders to the rising stars in tiers below where greater diversity exists. This is their time to shine. 

Frazer Thouard is a partner with GatenbySanderson’s local government practice.