Do we employ the right people in local government?

Answering questions…

Our good friends at the Guardian Local Government Network deliver each Friday a local government careers e-mail. The e-mail includes a link to their ‘working lives’ blog where local government employees describe what their job entails; a section called ask our members where local government people can ask for career advice and links to jobs and helpful career based articles. If you haven’t signed up before now you should.

All of this is by introduction to today’s post which seeks to answer the GLGN’s career question of the week:

Is local government employing the wrong type of people? Does it need to think about bringing people in from a much wider group, rather than focusing on people with previous public sector experience?

This is a common question and one that is often asked of the Whitehall civil service; an institution that generally employs policy generalists at the age of 25 and then at 45 after twenty years doing just that expects them to run departments, mange substantial IT systems and deliver complicated projects. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, was particularly scathing of this element of the civil service and I have no doubt that the debate over civil service skills will continue under the current administration.

But how does this work for local government? On face value the two shouldn’t be comparable. Whereas the whole civil service is, and here I am stereotyping for effect, basically one big policy team, local councils usually have a small policy team outside of the Chief Executive’s office. The rest of the staff on the council are carrying out front line service delivery.

They are much more like the NHS than anything Whitehall based.

But does this really change the terms of debate around the outside/inside debate? Much like the sterotype for Whitehall is deeply unfair I wonder whether the reverse stereotype for local authorities is also a little off.

Local government does require a large number of service ‘professionals’ whose expertise and qualifications mean that they are only going to have worked in the public sector. It also has jobs that require no public sector knowledge at all and everything in between those two points.

The classic examples of the ‘public service professional’ end of the continuum are social workers both on the childrens and adults side. I think social workers are probably the most extreme example in our council requiring advanced qualifications specifically designed for a complicated and crucial job. However, even in that profession it is possible to bring in a mix of experiences. For example, the manager of one of our social work teams in the council came from the NHS. So, yes he had public sector experience but not necessarily from within a council. Examples of this sort of thing are increasingly becoming more common.

Further along the continuum some other areas of the council require professional qualifications that are public sector specific. Finance teams require staff with CIPFA qualifications to be in senior positions, although this is cross public sector. Planners are required to have a planning qualification tailored to the local government role but judging by how many of our planners leave to join the private sector I’m sure this is fairly transferable.

Other jobs require you to understand them before you can do them well. Housing needs, library services, democratic services, scrutiny, adult education are all areas that don’t require professional local government qualifications as such but certainly do require specialist knowledge. Blindly believing that any good generalist can do them is misguided and the fact that many of these functions don’t really exist in the private sector means that councils fall back on experience as a determinant when employing.

Services such as HR, IT, engineering, contract management, road building, park management, law and many other areas of the council are all fairly transferable skills. However, even with them being transferable the practice of them is often pretty sector specific and councils would be foolish to ignore relevant experience just because one applicant had the words ‘private sector’ on their CV. Nonetheless, we should be seeking wider experience as and when we can.

In general then similarly to the civil service local government is not as independent of the rest of the job market as anyone might assume.

My boss is a strong believer that we need to bring in people with private sector experience. She worked in the private sector for a while and is of the opinion that it has made her what she is today (she is very good so perhaps an argument in favour… or just an anecdotal blip? I’ll leave the answer to that to others).

I differ somewhat.

What local government needs is not people from outside of the public sector necessarily but simply people from outside of our own council. Each local authority is really different with different contexts, different solutions and different ways of working. Likewise, each public sector organisation is different. Local councils don’t need people specifically from the private or third sectors to shake them up any more than failing private sector organisations need people from the public sector to shore them up. On the contrary what local government needs is good people who come to the problems with a fresh perspective and a history of success regardless of where they come from.

Some of these jobs will be public sector specific, some will favour those with at least some public sector experience and some will simply want the best candidate regardless of the job they have done before. Local government desperately needs turnover, churn and new perspectives. To assume that those must come from the private or third sector is, I think, a mistake.

Likewise, to ignore the private and third sectors because the people there don’t have the specific experience you have historically put on your job adverts is an even bigger error and one too often made.

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5 Comments on “Do we employ the right people in local government?”

  1. Estelle Rowe Says:

    Interesting post – thank you for sharing. Re. the last paragraph…managers assembling JDs requiring specific public sector only experience should consider for a moment the large numbers of ex public sector workers looking to the private or third sectors for work. The labour market has shifted on its axis, and movement between the sectors is vital to getting the economy going again. ‘Closing the public sector border’ serves no one’s purpose. It does a disservice to those fighting to persuade potential employers in the private and third sectors of their transferable skills.

  2. Jake Says:

    Good blog, one point for clarity though:

    “Planners are required to have a planning qualification tailored to the local government role but judging by how many of our planners leave to join the private sector I’m sure this is fairly transferable.”

    In my personal experience planners are required to hold at least a masters qualification from an RTPI accredited course at the start of their career, however this isn’t tailored to local government, all of the masters courses I’m aware of are general allowing entry to either the private or public sector. There is admittedly a variance in the subject areas covered and some courses clearly set planners up for a career in one sector or another on the basis of their focus as it obviously helps at interview if say for the private sector you’ve spent more time on financial viability than say plan preparation.

    Having said that the skill sets are generally transferable, hence the ability to switch sectors. It’s also worth noting that the public sector is increasingly expected to be more market aware, while the private sector now has to spend more time consulting the general public which was previously a public sector task.

    • Thanks for the clarification Jake, I am happy to admit that this is not my field and it seems I just got that wrong… Appreciate you taking the time to add to it…

      Glad you liked the rest of the post…

  3. tomsprints Says:

    This piece does seem to be to be largely founded on a premise I find difficult to accept: that in some way, local government people falll into their jobs off some form of specifically local-government-people-creating conveyor belt. Now, that might once have been the case, oh, 30 years and more ago. Nowadays, I believe it’s very far from the case.

    I was a rarity in the team I left not long ago, for having worked a whole career in local government. One person out of twelve. No, it isn’t background, skill sets or aptitude of staff in local authorities that creates the decision-making problem, it’s culture. And what’s more, it’s a culture that hasn’t actually altered very much as people have come into local government from a diverse range of work histories.

    It’s the risk averse culture I’m referring to, of course. Local government has never been tolerant of failure, never properly prepared to accept it as a risk, or as something that happens and you learn from it.

    Some of the reasons for that are simple: there’s a lot at stake in many services, for example. People’s lives and health, big money, the well-being of communities, etc. I’m not advocating turning local government into a constant gamble, of course, but those elected Members, managers and management teams who seek each time to eliminate risk from plans and decisions need to take a good look at the effect this has lower down the food chain.

    When failure is “not an option”, the creative retreat into their shells, or in some cases, go and work elsewhere. Innovation is pared back to levels deemed to be “safe”, and, in my view, some pretty significant under-achievement is the result.

    The dwindling number of local government jobs is going to make it harrder and harder to be able to insist on previous local-government (let alone service-specific) experience as a job requirement, and I do not believe some form of specific local government inbreeding between councils is the answer. Inbreeding invariably weakens the species.

    No, get in there and look at what a risk averse culture is doing to whhat local government people could do if they were allowed!

  4. Thanks for this, it’s very nice to know that our resources are well liked and well used in the sector.

    If any We Love Local Gov readers have ideas or suggestions for the Guardian Local Government Network do get in touch.

    And don’t forget to sign up as a member – it’s totally free and incredibly useful (take WLLG’s word for it!)

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