Let’s be flexible, purposeful, and skilled

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Every sector in the UK is facing workforce and recruitment issues. But local government faces a unique set of challenges as Civica’s Emily Douglin explains

The recent Local Government Association Workforce Survey highlighted vacancy rates and ageing as major concerns; as well as struggles with wellbeing, diversity and skill gaps. In fact, the 2022 report found that 90% of all councils said they had a capability skills gap in their management teams and over 80% said they had a capacity skills gap in a least one area. Nearly all respondents (94%) said that they were experiencing recruitment and retention difficulties.

All these points, and many more, were highlighted in Civica and Solace’s recent Manchester workshop with Chief Executives and aspiring leaders on Solace’s Springboard programme. Our topic, the changing workforce, is a huge challenge for our local authorities and there are many areas which need addressing now if we’re to meet the needs of communities in 2032.

What might the future landscape of local government look like? What skills will local government leaders need to run resilient and responsive services and how do teams need to transform over time? Taking a strategic view is a huge task, but it’s not the only task. We need this to be coupled with initiatives that create change now to impact immediate issues – how can we attract more people into council careers today and join us on the journey?

Focus on flexible and multiskilled roles

While the Covid pandemic accelerated the move to more flexible working, this is an area where local government leaders believe they can stand out in the crowded employment market.

It’s a question of getting hybrid and flexible working right for everyone. As we use more emerging technology and automation, there will be more roles we can carry out from anywhere. But this needs to be balanced with creating collaborative, in-person workspaces where people can meet, work and innovate together. One participant told us how their Early Careers Network had highlighted they prefer an office-based approach and feel less supported when working from home; while healthy and sustainable working practices must become a higher priority as we live, and work, for longer. So we mustn’t presume that one-size-fits-all in the workplace.

There may also be a move to working in spaces more rooted in the community; people want to work in more modern, flexible spaces, dropping into to work in libraries and community centres for example. Leaders are exploring how we move towards this model for the future.

There is also a strong notion that we need to move to a more adaptive workforce in local government. This will see less hierarchy and more flexibility: people will move around roles more fluidly or carry out several roles during one working week.

This multi-skilled approach is beneficial both for councils to attract the talent they need and for employees and candidates looking for variety in their careers.

Heloise MacAndrew

Cheshire West and Chester Council

Historically, we wanted to put people in boxes but that is changing as people change jobs at rapid speed. In the future, we will recruit more for behaviours than technical skills – with less of a linear path and more immersive and personalised learning.

Be bolder about purpose

It was clear to me that those around the table felt we undersell the social value of the work which local government employees carry out every day. As one leader pointed out, people tend to see the sector as all about ‘Bins, bodies and buckets’ but there’s so much more to the work people undertake to transform lives in communities! Unlike the British Army its former ‘Be the Best’ slogan, or the undeniable ‘saving lives’ message of the National Health Service, individual councils are disparate and struggle to attract and recruit people under one key purpose. So is it time for a brand refresh?

It's also clear that the breadth of work and opportunities available in councils is outstanding – and leaders should and could make more of this diversity of roles on offer. Gen Z employees coming into today’s workforce want to work for organisations which reflect their social values and offer varied opportunities to use a range of skills – perfectly aligned with a career in local government.

Seek the skills we need

Another recurring theme was the need to bring the younger generation into the discussion much more effectively. If local government is recruiting for the future, what skills will we need? Everyone agreed that skills in emerging technology and cyber such as artificial intelligence and machine learning will be invaluable, as well as advancing activity and prowess in social media to help attract the future workforce.

There were also calls to work closer with schools and change the curriculum so that young people see local government roles as an opportunity to make real change – working more closely with schools and colleges to educate pupils more about the purpose and value and attract the skills needed to run our public services in the future.

Dominic Whelan

Oldham Council

We need to rebalance and get ahead. We’re so busy running hot and strategising, that we sometimes lose sight of the skills we will need for future success.

Partner up

Whether fairly or not, the private sector is still viewed by many candidates as more attractive and agile. But there is plenty of potential for local government to partner with the private sector more, whether on traineeships and apprenticeships or degree frameworks where both parties benefit.

Councils could do more to link up with universities and connect with potential employees at an earlier stage – contributing to growing their own.

There are definitely challenges ahead for recruitment and working practices across our councils. But everyone agreed it was particularly useful to take a few hours out from the busy day jobs to discuss these vital themes which will shape the future workforce of our local services for decades to come.

Emily Douglin is Divisional Managing Director, Local Government at Civica. This workshop, in partnership with Solace, forms part of a series of #FutureOfLocalGov sessions where we discuss challenges facing local government and getting future ready. 

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