Use the staff-Force
What better way to end a week of posts reflecting on the wider context for local government than to reflect on the local government workforce? Well, we couldn’t think of anything either, so here goes.
Like many service industries, and indeed like most organisations in existence, local government is almost entirely dependent on the quality of the people who work for it. Whilst it is not universally the case, generally those councils who contain and retain the best staff deliver the best services, and the converse is just as true. This poses the sector a number of inter-related challenges.
Firstly, the local government workforce is getting older and local government has struggled to attract and retain the calibre of new recruits to leave people confident in the future of the industry. On the one hand this has resulted in staff who are increasingly experienced in their field, but of course holds the danger of a potential lack of innovative new ideas coming from people new to the sector.
A key point of ingress for these newcomers has for the last few years been through the NGDP programme. However, it has become clear that this excellent stream of talent appears to have been dammed, with fewer councils taking on graduates as well as investing in their training and development. This short term quest to save a few pennies promises to cost many, many pounds in the future.
Secondly, whilst local government staff are not, relatively speaking, badly paid the recent attacks on the pay and conditions of council workers has damaged morale and has the potential to put people off joining the sector.
A sizable portion of local government staff do not do it for the money, instead focussing on providing excellent services for the residents they serve. But there is only so many jibes, attacks, snipes and outright verbal assaults which most of us can take. Morale is something which is often the first casualty when cuts bite, but unless we address the now low levels of job satisfaction it’s only a matter of time before service delivery gets affected.
Finally, a simple point perhaps but an important one to bring up is that austerity has meant that many local government staff have lost their jobs. In case you’d missed it, we saw 145,000 posts disappear from the public sector in 2011 alone, and in that time demand upon the services they delivered until then has mostly not followed suit and disappeared, in fact some services are more in demand than ever before.
Whilst many of these cut staff have been the victims of what is indelicately called natural wastage, in some cases this means that those who can get another job do and those that can’t remain in the council. This can never be seen as a good state of affairs, neither for those who leave or for those who are left behind. Just because a competent staff member gets a new position does not mean under any circumstances that their previous role is now no longer needed; put simply, recruitment freezes are a ridiculous idea.
Equally, there are many good staff who find themselves made redundant and looking for an alternative way of making a living. The government intended that these individuals would be taken on by the private sector, taking the best part of the public sector and reinvigorating its private counterpart. This doesn’t seem to be happening yet, although with the advent of localism and the option for staff to set up their own social enterprise and bid to challenge the council’s service delivery there is hope for this aim yet. About as much chance as Team GB topping the medals tables at the Olympics perhaps, but a theoretical hope nonetheless.
All of this should make the dispassionate observer fear for the long term future of the local government workforce. Whilst we are perhaps not dispassionate observers, we take a contrary view and actually feel pretty positive about it all.
The thing that unites most people in public service is that their motivations for doing their work extend far beyond salaries and the wider political context. People enter local government to help people, to develop their communities and because they believe in public service.
I don’t see any particular reason that this would change.
However, this public service does not have to exist within local government and just because staff want to serve their community does not mean that we can take it easy or take out staff for granted. My fear is that we will fail to inspire and motivate our staff and that either they will not feel able to best serve their community and become despondent or else they will just leave local government.
It’s thus really important that we support our staff to the maximum; and whilst I don’t think the Government noise will lead to a drop off in local government staffing there is a real danger at the local level. After staffing levels themselves, the next thing to face the axe in a bid to save money is often training budgets. The argument goes that staff are employed to do their jobs, and thus must be competent enough to do so already. After all, why would we hire someone not up to the task in the first place?
Training costs organisations a pretty penny every year. We think this is a good thing. Every penny spent on training saves a fortune in time, effort and alternative cost further down the line, makes staff feel valued and enables them to keep up with new developments in their fields. The thought that the world stands still or that staff will be able to keep up with it on their own is ridiculous, so councils should be offering training and development opportunities to their staff from the top to the bottom and in every direction – it’s what the phrase ‘invest to save’ was coined for.
We’ve also spoken in the past about the importance of staff moving between authorities, thus sharing their knowledge and experience across the entire sector rather than retaining it all within one part of it to the detriment of the whole. We get very protective over our staff teams in local government, these days even more so due to the fact that many people’s pay grades are tied not into their competence or the importance of their work solely but also to the number of people they manage. With the aforementioned recruitment freeze in place all too often, when good staff move on their manager sees nothing but negative consequences rather than any opportunities.
We need to change our focus and step back in these situations. It may be a little zen in nature, but by stepping back and considering the positive impact upon the wider sector we should realise that the more who move between authorities, the more opportunity for the dissemination of good practice there is, and the more likely we are to identify bad practice along the way. As long as staff are contributing to local government somewhere then they should be encouraged to think about how else they may learn and continue to grow, and through their own growth improve the lot of as many local authorities as possible.
Of course, this may not be for everyone. A huge slice of the workforce work in the same borough that they live in. This is great, as they have an affinity with their areas which (for want of a better phrase) ‘outsiders’ would struggle to match. This doesn’t mean however that they should be abandoned with regards to their own development; they too should be encouraged and supported to develop.
The one silver lining about the whole staffing cut situation is a harsh one perhaps, but one worth mentioning: with fewer staff there are fewer opportunities for poor staff to hide. Local government is no different to any organisation in that the performance of its staff can vary, and looking back over my own tenure in the sector I have known many people who have deliberately or unbeknownst to themselves been carried by their colleagues. With the stripping back of staff and the roles we undertake, this is become increasingly rare.
As I look around the office these days I see a group of people who are experienced, skilled, interested in development and delivering under difficult circumstances. We all appreciate that our futures are not guaranteed any more, so strive to make sure that whatever else happens we have some excellent work to put on our CVs, and we do our best to support each other as we really are all in as precarious a position as each other; who knows who might be next?
It may not be the easiest of times and may feel challenging more often than not, but if we can survive today when times are bad then imagine how much stronger we will be in the future.
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