Headaches for local government are always numerous but one is now reaching migraine proportions.
Talk to any chief executive or senior officer in the sector and it won’t be long until the issue of workforce crops up.
Not only are councils facing the mammoth task of fatigue in their workforces following the pandemic, but they are also facing a highly competitive employment market. Going around the participants at a joint West Midlands’ Employers and The MJ round table in Warwickshire there was broad agreement that both these factors were causing sleepless nights.
One person at the table pointed out that the staff councils are asking to work hardest now tend to be the same ones they have expected to work hardest throughout the pandemic. This is particularly true of care services, where recruitment and retention are particularly acute.
There was also a sense that focusing on fatigue can be self-fulfilling.
‘We’ve been talking about fatigue so much it almost makes it become the truth,’ said one participant. ‘We need to change the narrative because we don’t want it to go in the wrong direction.’
And this issue of burnout is coupled with the challenge of pay as the cost of living crisis begins to bite.
‘We are now competing with a gap of three and four per cent with retail,’ said one. ‘People gave up lives during the pandemic to look after people. Pay hasn’t been at the top of the list for them, but it is now because it has to be.’
Another pointed out that Lidl is now paying £1.50 more an hour than the health and care sector are offering.
‘We are losing people from the sector and the people doing it are getting a new yacht.’
One voice around the table accepted that local government had been culpable in driving down pay although another said the sector didn’t have a choice.
There was a clear sense that local government shouldn’t be shooting itself in the foot with councils and the wider public sector competing against each other.
‘We need to be competing with the aggressive employers in the private sector,’ said one.
But austerity, according to another participant, is a significant impediment to recruitment and retention.
‘We are not seen as progressive and not seen worth investing your career in as we have seen 12 years of contraction.’
This is a particular problem when councils across the country are going through significant culture change and facing the need to attract staff with new and emerging skills. A phrase used a lot during the conversation was a ‘pipeline of talent’.
The sense of everyone holding their heads around the table was almost palpable as the list of challenges to attracting and keeping the necessary talent poured out. Alongside competition from the private sector and burnout, geography is also throwing up the risk of a ‘brain drain’ as some regions face becoming a ‘suburb of London’.
One key solution being pursued by many is the flexibility that has emerged in the last couple of years.
With many roles able to be done fully or partially from remote locations, councils are now looking around the country for staff. In fact, one admitted to recruiting internationally. With a couple of staff based in Europe they have settled for a hybrid model so these workers come into the office a few days a month.
The positive of being able to widen the net is however being countered with an almost Wild West market. As one senior officer admitted, they were seeing their authority facing the challenge of planners willing to move to different councils around the county ‘for a couple of grand’.
While the emergence of more remote working had benefits for recruitment, one participant pointed out the need to remember that councils are ‘place-based’ and another accepted that for those at director level there was a need to be regularly present to properly understand communities.
There was also a recognition that councils risk creating a two tier workforce, with cleaners and care workers needing to travel to work while others, often in more senior positions, can enjoy the benefits of working from home.
Other brakes on flexibility expressed around the table were old fashioned management practices which were excessively focused on staff ‘clocking in and out’ and a stubborn determination by some members to be able to see workers at their desks.
However, this stubbornness is being matched by a similar determination by some senior officers to grasp the opportunities offered by hybrid working.
As one put it: ‘Flexibility has been key. That has been a clear change in culture. We need to focus on performance and output. I’m selling the building before they change their mind.’
On top of flexibility there was a sense among participants that councils need to sell the sector to attract top talent.
‘We need to change the narrative of local government as it is in the wrong place,’ said one. ‘We spend hours and hours talking about lack of funding. If I ask if my son would want to work in local government, the answer is no.’
Another agreed, adding: ‘Local government came out of COVID really well, but we haven’t capitalised on that. We have a good reputation and we need to capture that bounce.’
A gripe on this issue is how national Government perceives the sector, with a general feeling that they don’t understand councils and what they can do. With reference to the pandemic, one voice complained that councils ‘had to fight national Government’ to be able to take on responsibilities. The result, they argued, was that ‘nobody knew’ councils were carrying out vital roles such as delivering food parcels. Another concurred, pointing out it was ‘exactly the same with Ukraine’.
Another participant said the political nature of councils was also a blocker to councils attracting talent.
‘When we are selling local government, we have to recognise that we are there but for the grace of elected members. You can disappear and it does happen quite a lot. That’s not the case in the NHS.’
However, the point was also made that the health service was also facing similar workforce problems and one of the causes was the ‘top down’ nature of its leadership which damaged its authenticity.
‘Local government needs to be honest and authentic,’ they said. ‘People respect that.’
And with councils facing so many workforce pressures and challenges, is there space to tackle equality and diversity issues?
The answer from one participant came back loud and clear – equality and diversity remain crucial parts of the solution to councils genuinely serving their communities.
‘The complexity of change has never been so complex. We need to reflect our communities. How can the workforce come up with creative solutions if it hasn’t got experience of the people? We need to change things for people in our communities and we can only do that through being diverse.’
A final note was struck again on the perception of local government. In the view of one participant, the branding of councils was ‘appalling’, with the titles for some jobs in the sector often inexplicable, meaning no one knows what local government does. There was a vital need, they said, for councils to bang the drum for the sector.
‘It’s the most amazing job in the world, but unless you tell people that they won’t know. It’s the only job where you can enshrine yourself in a place and every day you can make a difference to people’s lives. If I was 18, I would definitely want to work in local government.’
West Midlands Employers comment
From Rebecca Davis – chief executive
Behind everything that local government delivers and achieves is our workforce. In the West Midlands we have over 62,000 permanent employees (excluding our school staff) and thousands of temporary workers. Our workforce is also our community and we need to strive to reflect our community and ensure that is reflected through the leadership of our organisations.
We have a strong history of collaboration in the West Midlands, for delivering services together that benefit our collective local government workforce. Since 2012 councils have collaborated on a range of recruitment initiatives and technology. More recently through COVID all 32 councils participated in a ‘WMHeroes’ campaign recognising the important work of our ‘unsung heroes’ that has since evolved to be sector based career hubs to raise the profile of local government as an employer. In 2022 Councils launched WMTemps, a partnership with Suffolk CC-owned Opus People Solutions, to transform how temporary agency resourcing is managed. We have invested in developing an inspirational ‘Breaking Through’ leadership elevation programme for our diverse talent and an ‘Allyship’ program for senior leaders. By doing more together, we can achieve bigger outcomes.
The world of work has changed at a fast pace and councils are having honest conversations about what as independent employers and more broadly as a local government sector we should and can do, to attract and retain talent. WME will be continuing that conversation across our region and ensuring we continue to be a hub of innovation and investment to pilot new initiatives that address the organisational and cultural challenges we face.
WME is proud to be member led and wholly owned by 32 Councils in the West Midlands Region. Working on their behalf, in 2021/22 delivered HR & People services to over 412 organisations in the Region that provide services for or on behalf of the public sector. www.wmemployers.org.ukwork
Round table attendees:
Martin Reeves – Chief executive, Coventry City Council
Lesley Shore – Director of human resources – consulting and membership, West Midlands Employers
Simon Fletcher – Chief executive, Lichfield DC
Rebecca Davis – Chief executive, West Midlands Employers
Dr Justin Varney – Director of public health, Birmingham City Council
Sarah Duxbury – Assistant director – governance and policy, Warwickshire CC
Boris Worrall – Group chief executive, Rooftop Housing Group
Manny Sandhu – Director of leadership – organisational development and resourcing, West Midlands Employers
Kerry McCrossan – Assistant director of adult social care, Worcestershire CC
Michele Leith – Director of human resources, organisational development and administration, Walsall MBC
David Sidaway – Chief executive, Telford & Wrekin Council