Reasons to be cheerful

By Heather Jameson | 01 December 2021

A mid countless warnings that the pandemic has led to people re-thinking their work lives, The MJ reported last month that around half the London boroughs were losing their chief executives – many due to delayed departures during the COVID crisis.

But there are reasons to be optimistic that not all of local government is heading for the door. In the annual survey of chief executives by Penna and The MJ – this year in conjunction with the Local Government Association – 46% of respondents said they had no plans to leave their current role. A further 34% said they were interested in shifting job, but not actively looking yet.

If that is not reason enough to be cheerful about hanging on to some of the senior talent, a huge 81% of the survey’s respondents said they would be looking to stay in local government if and when they move.

Nevertheless, there are some hints about why other colleagues are getting ready to leave. One of our chief executives explained: ‘I am becoming less tolerant of member behaviour and wish to move out of local government. This is after 40 years’ service.’

Our chief executive respondents clearly feel undervalued in their jobs. When asked how they think central government regards local government, 54% said fairly negatively, with a further 5% opting for ‘very negatively’.

One respondent said: ‘There is a general feeling of local government not being fully trusted to deliver, despite our performance during COVID which was exceptional.’

The respondent was not alone. As well as a lack of trust, respondents said they saw too much centralism and a complete lack of understanding about what local government does. One chief blamed Government influence on senior salaries and changes to pension rules for damaging the relationship.

On a more positive note, one respondent suggested: ‘I think different departments have different views. The pandemic has changed perceptions, but are they permanent changes? We’ll see.’

The pandemic has taught us all a lot. Some of the clear lessons coming out of the survey were the importance of communication and collaboration, and that local government is far more resilient than was previously thought.

One respondent said it taught them ‘how amazing local government is’, while another marveled at ‘our ability to adapt and make change at pace’. They asked: ‘How do we keep this happening?’

When asked about reforming local government, it may come as no surprise that many of our respondents wanted a new system of funding, giving them more certainty. They are also looking for more use of data and digitisation, more efficiency, and a focus on prevention.

And for many, the two-tier system is toast. ‘I think there will be further rounds of reorganisation – clearly we still have too much cost in management and administration and could learn from our private sector colleagues on this,’ it was suggested.

Councils also seem to be improving their diversity and inclusion, with 16% of respondents suggesting they had made great progress on creating a workforce that better reflects the community, 56% making moderate progress, while 28% said they had made a little progress.

One respondent suggested it had been ‘a struggle’ to get a diverse shortlist for senior posts. In an effort to be more reflective of the local community, local authorities are reviewing their recruitment strategies and their gender pay gaps.

Many of the respondents talked of creating staff networking groups, and working with them to understand the challenges and barriers for minority staff.

‘We are looking at the gender pay gap,’ one chief said. ‘Encouraging women to apply and be recruited to senior posts. We are advertising more widely to attract Black and Minority Ethnic communities and to make the council welcoming to all parts of the population.’

Another added: ‘We are disability confident but need to enhance the level. We will be working with Stonewall to become a more attractive employer for LGBTQIA+ people.’

Finally, we asked what was number one on chief executives’ wishlist for local government. Unsurprisingly, funding was one of the key asks – but rather than just asking for more cash, our chiefs wanted stability, with multi-year settlements and the chance to raise their own finances. As someone put it: ‘It’s not all about the money – except when it is.’

And they wanted an end to uncertainty over reorganisation. ‘Stop imposing unasked for local government reorganisation on areas, do it properly or not at all.’

But most of all, it seems local government just wants to be loved, with many calling for respect, recognition and to be left to do what is best for their own community. One called for ‘parity of “esteem” with the NHS who are the most inefficient part of the public service but are loved, revered and celebrated (by Government and the public) while local government is not....they could learn something from us if only they would listen.’

Work practices: Is your council considering the following?

Reducing the number of physical work places – 78%

Increasing flexible working options – 87%

Changing models of service delivery – 72%

Increasing hybrid working – 98%

Increasing home working – 51%

Jobs that are challenging to recruit

Social Care

Planning

Legal, finance and IT

HGV drivers

Environmental health and building control

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