Future Forum 2017: Shock poll: 50% of chiefs plan to leave local government by 2020

By Toni Hall and Anthony Lewis | 02 May 2017

The MJ once again joined forces with Penna in its annual poll of council CEOs on the issues and challenges they face. The outcome presented to forum delegates detailed a snapshot of their thoughts on everything from job satisfaction to Brexit.

The survey reveals what is uppermost in their minds and the solutions they are using to deal with issues. It was a chance for CEOs to review the highs and lows of 2016: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Unsurprisingly, austerity was one of the biggest talking points. Underfunding was an overwhelming concern with many deeply worried about the effect of budget cuts. There was particular anxiety about the impact on key services such as adult social care and about the consequences for vulnerable individuals.

However, there was also positivity about the opportunities which financial challenges had brought. For example, the chance to think creatively and bring in exciting reforms.

A significant number of CEOs highlighted the qualities which the tough financial climate had brought to the surface: resourcefulness, innovation and a sense of entrepreneurship. In our experience these are the must-have future competencies of public sector leaders.

While pride in resilience was a strong recurring theme, many CEOs were disturbed by the increasing competition between councils for a dwindling pot of government funding. This in-fighting was exacerbated by a growing focus on the structure and relative importance of different authorities. In many cases, CEOs blamed devolution discussions for raising questions and conflicts about local government organisation.

The complex subject of devolution proved a bone of contention in several other ways. While many CEOs said it was one of the best aspects of 2016, there was considerable frustration about a perceived lack of progress. Some doubted that the Government had the capacity to take the proposals forward, while one CEO went further and labelled devolution ‘a complete waste of time and effort’. In short, the topic of devolution drew a very mixed response.

This time last year, Brexit weighed heavily on the minds of CEOs. Some 70% polled in last year’s survey believed that leaving the EU would have a negative effect on their area.

Fast forward 12 months and it is a very different picture. Sixty-eight per cent of respondents said Brexit so far had no effect on their organisation. This is perhaps no surprise as post-referendum negotiations with the EU have only just begun. However, the 20% of CEOs who claimed Brexit had made an impact, cited community tensions and hate crime as two troubling factors. The poll also gauged CEOs’ thoughts on two other current topics affecting their workforce: IR35 and the apprenticeship levy.

While almost all CEOs were fully prepared for the former, government apprenticeship plans produced a more diverse reaction.

Most councils were prepared for the changes (and offered apprenticeships already). Many were concerned about the extra costs it would incur. It all comes back to the biggest test for CEOs in 2016: budget cuts and austerity.

Reduced government funding has brought with it a number of other challenges. For instance, many CEOs have struggled to implement change in order to cope with cuts. Another major difficulty has been the constant battle to recruit, motivate and retain staff amid change and intense financial uncertainty.

On the plus side, austerity has forced councils to come up with some creative coping mechanisms. To deliver good services and value for money with scarce resources, CEOs have had to be both determined and inventive. Modernising technology and processes; sharing management teams; building new income streams – these were just some of the approaches that were mentioned.

The most common solution involved going back to basics: analysing demand, setting priorities and constantly reviewing performance and efficiency.

Many CEOs looked to new arrangements: outsourcing partners and sharing resources with other councils. There was a general consensus that major changes could not be avoided and that councils – and the public – would have to accept that hard decisions were inevitable.

Despite all this, 34% of CEOs said they found their job more enjoyable than this time last year. For 38%, nothing had changed, while 27% were enjoying it less.

Long-term, the figures for leadership itself were troubling. Nearly 50% of CEOs were either sure or potentially leaving the public sector. For this 19%, retirement was by far the most common reason. Perhaps a factor of the ageing workforce challenge that remains ever-present for the public sector.

So what about the next generation of aspiring CEOs? Our current chief executives said resilience was the quality they needed more than anything else. With tenacity, stamina and patience all mentioned, it is clear tomorrow’s leaders will need to be tough if they want to excel and achieve.

When asked what advice they would give to future leaders, the CEOs offered varied guidance. ‘Build your reputation’; ‘Get a broad skills base’ and ‘Spend time outside public services’, were some of the responses.

Many were extremely positive despite the sector’s current challenges. ‘Go for it!’ was the phrase that came up often in their responses.

Although all the CEOs were acutely aware of today’s financial climate, most felt the job was an amazing opportunity to change lives for the better.

To request a copy of the survey, email Oyinda.bishi@penna.com

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