OPINION: Getting beyond the doom and gloom – the talent challenge in UK local government
We have for many years in local government been struggling to retain in the profession talented and experienced children’s social workers. This is challenging work. Thankfully, cases such as Baby P are a rarity, but nonetheless, these staff face daily decisions which require fine judgements and carry great risk. Whilst there is a steady supply of new graduates, there is high churn, the result of burn-out and the higher take-home pay and greater flexibility offered by agency work.
Councils are seeking to re-balance the perm/temp mix in the children’s social care workforce and reduce agency costs, by seeking to guarantee workloads, enhance the framework of supervision and give opportunities for training and career advancement, often in collaboration with other councils. There are moves too to get councils to cooperate in managing the market, and specifically to control the spiralling costs of agency staff.
What we are now seeing in the local government sector, alongside this and other specific pressure points, is a more general challenge around recruiting and retaining talent. It has many parallels to the social worker problem. It starts with our ability to project a positive employment brand. Local government has been on the front-line of the government’s squeeze on public sector spending. Budgets have reduced by around 40%, with more to come. The focus in the sector and the media has been on the impact of the cuts, on the level of job losses. People have talked about the “end of local government as we know it” and there are continuing headlines about public sector pay constraint. Politicians are not always positive about the sector and despite the success in reducing costs and protecting services, local government is still not seen as a particularly dynamic place to work.
The reality of course is that, having made many efficiency savings, if local government is to continue to meet the needs of the community with considerable less resource, it needs to change fundamentally. We need new operating models and new relationships with customers, communities and partners. We need talented and innovative people to stay and to join the sector to drive that change and, indeed, there has never been a more exciting time to do so and make your mark.
What we need to do though is redefine our brand and we need everyone to play their part in doing so. Government, society, customers and our own organisations will benefit if we can sell the sector to talented people. There is a very positive brand to sell; marrying that commitment to public service (which research suggests matters to the younger generation) with an attractive broad-based employment deal, encompassing a fair approach to pay with opportunities for learning, development and individual growth. We need to define clear career paths, but in shrinking organisations we may well need to do that collaboratively, focusing less perhaps on the merits of one council over another and more on the opportunity to work in the sector.
Whether it is social care or more widely in local government, we need to define a positive employment brand and we need to collectively promote it to ensure that we attract talent into local government professions that society needs and should value.
About the Author
Martin Rayson is currently head of human resources and organisational development at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, a post he has filled since May 2010. Martin’s career has included the most senior HR role in two County Councils – Essex and Lincolnshire – and he has also been the Director of Resources in a District Council. This career history has enabled him to get an insight into people management and organisational change issues across all parts of local government. Martin has also worked in the social housing sector and as a business coach.
Martin is a former President of the Public Sector People Managers Association (PPMA). The PPMA represents the interests of over 600 members working across the people management and development professions within the public sector, including local and central government, the police service and fire and rescue authorities and seeks to promote world-class HR practice in the public sector.