What future for graduates in local government?

A ticket to the corporate centre?

Last week we joined the discussion of the recently downsized National Graduate Development Programme and suggested that this was going to be the start of a big debate. Since then, Impower and Futuregov have dipped their toes in the water and today one of our readers gives her analysis of the scheme and emphasises the importance of looking beyond the corporate centre when developing, and attracting, talent in the future.

 If you would like to provide a guest post on this, or any other, topic please drop us a line at welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com but not before you’ve enjoyed this excellent post.

Like many across the sector, I was exasperated but not entirely surprised at the recent news that the National Graduate Development programme (NGDP) is to face major cutbacks. At a time when local authorities are implementing unprecedented public spending cuts now more than ever it is vital that the sector attracts the best possible future leaders.

Many might be asking themselves the question, in an era of cuts is attracting graduates into local government really a priority? Surely difficult choices have to be made?

No local government officer or policy maker would argue that cuts don’t need to be made; but every ‘difficult choice’ has wider ramifications that will impact upon the sector well into the future. Key stakeholders have emphasised the need to ‘avoid the road to nowhere’ and local government as a whole has now definitely reached a critical tipping point  where it must set out a vision of where it wants to be in 10 or even 20 years time. Surely, at the heart of this must be a carefully thought out strategic approach as to how the sector will attract, develop and retain the best talent in order to advance that vision?

The attraction of the NGDP was that it attracted that inflow of talent that supports local government’s drive to serve local communities in the best way it possibly can. And of course an immense sense of pride can be taken from the fact that through schemes such as the NGDP many high calibre graduates have entered and stayed in local government who in the past may have made other career choices.

So what went wrong (if anything) and what is the way forward?

For many the NGDP has been a resounding success; but I think maybe its time we started to develop a broader vision of the types of people that should be fast tracked to leadership roles within local authorities.

In 2008/9, I worked at a Northern Local Authority on projects that were related to frontline services whether that was reconfiguring the waste service or conducting a review of charging in leisure. We were thrown right in at the deep end but I wouldn’t have changed a minute of that experience for anything. It gave a great insight into how the services that local communities rely on day to day are managed and run.

That overwhelmingly positive experience confirmed to me that the sector needs to change the way in which it develops its future talent. Over the last few years I have lost count of the number of graduates working within local government who have gone on to work within the corporate centre in policy roles. There is clearly a narrative that says the best, brightest and most influential people within the sector must be working in corporate policy and performance roles.

This narrative must be challenged.

It wasn’t true when I was an officer and it certainly isn’t true now. In fact at a time when frontline services are haemorrhaging key managers with years of experience in what some consider to be an unsustainable manner; surely the time has come for the sector to develop a strategy for ensuring that talent doesn’t just flow into local government; but it flows into those key visible frontline services.

If the sector is going to achieve this aim, then there is a need to link up any national graduate schemes such as the NGDP with other schemes designed to bring the professions into local government. Of course there is an acceptance that generic management skills are important but local government needs social workers, planners as well as a whole variety of other frontline posts.

What more can be done to develop these people and ensure that they become the local government directors and Chief Executives of the future?

Like many who entered local government as a graduate – I am a passionate supporter of attracting the best possible talent into the sector. In recent years there have been so many outstanding young people taking up positions at local authorities and it angers me to see the ladder pulled away from those who just want to pursue a career where they can serve their local community and make a difference.

Surely, if local government is going to continue to meet the challenges of the future then we need to be attracting the best possible people and that includes graduates. The difficulty is how to move away from a critique of what has gone before and propose a solution. Let the debate commence!

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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2 Comments on “What future for graduates in local government?”

  1. cat Says:

    I’m not too sure there is a narrative of smart and bright equals corporate centre. More that when you leave the ngdp you’re not actually qualified for anything as such and the corporate centre has roles for cleverness that don’t need service specific experience.

    When on the ngdp i was insistent on front line experience because thats where i ultimately wanted to work but it was hard to get and i know many struggled. My first post ngdp job was probably more to do with the experience i’d had before but the skills gained on the scheme helped me progress i’m sure.

    It seems to me that what the sector needs is leadership skills from all walks of life and i wonder if a way of doing that is to have a scheme/network open to all professions, across public services, that brings slices of people to work together in new ways. I’m sure cleverer people than me can think through how to do this but if we want senior leaders to have skills in cross sector working and partnership best to start early?

    If there is still an argument for a graduate scheme too then great but maybe we can have just one?

  2. martinhowitt Says:

    I’m just a little bit ambivalent about this. Graduate Schemes are not necessarily the way to attract the right talent and can act in an elitist way. Don’t we also want to be attracting people with some external experience into the sector and/or doing our best to develop the talent we have (some of which will (gasp!) not be graduates)?

    On the other hand, maybe I’m just saying that because I’m bitter about not being on one of these schemes 🙂

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