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A golden opportunity for the sector

Written by: Nicole Chiverton
Published on: 25 Nov 2021

Nicola Chiverton says local government is currently enjoying a renewed, positive profile – in no small part due to the efforts made during the pandemic. So now is the time to harness this appreciation and ‘sell’ the personal – and potentially world-changing – benefits of starting a career in the sector.

In 2019 I wrote an article exploring how and if the local government sector needed to consider rebranding in order to position itself as an employer of choice. The challenge of attracting the best calibre of individuals to build a pipeline of leadership talent has never been more evident, and even back in 2019 this felt like a priority. It was already clear that, as a sector, past talk of succession and workforce development strategies had not delivered.

At that time, no one could ever have imagined that some six months later there would be a global pandemic of such proportions that the services provided by many councils would be thrust into the limelight, therefore paving the way for the kind of rebrand that many felt was wholly necessary. And now, here we are, rapidly approaching the end of 2021 – and as the impacts of the pandemic become ever clearer and the involvement of local government continues, public perception of the sector seems to have been recast.

From the beginning of the pandemic in the UK, councils formed a crucial pillar of the response, quickly repurposing people, places and services to support those who needed it most. At the same time, ways were found to continue to deliver the most critical services to the general public to ensure that essential service continuity was maintained. Community hubs were set up to supply vital support and volunteering hubs were coordinated to ensure the response was as far-reaching as possible.

If you are one of the approximately 9.5m people known to have contracted coronavirus in the UK over the last two years you may have been contacted by test and trace, who will have informed you about all the services your council could support you with during your isolation period. This ranges from support with money to covering living costs, to helping getting food and other essentials and even help with your business.

While the country – quite rightly – applauded the NHS from their doorsteps for their role in the pandemic, as an employer, the challenge to attract talent has been increased significantly for the NHS over the last two years. The lack of adequate PPE, ever changing guidance and legislation, and haunting and exhausting working conditions have caused swaths of employees to leave the NHS and in some cases the medical profession altogether.

While the impact of the pandemic has clearly led to some sector leads re-evaluating their careers or re-prioritising their life choices, I do not believe local government will be negatively impacted in the same way in terms of attracting new talent. Arguably the role local government has played throughout the pandemic has solidified the sector’s reputation as the fourth blue-light service. Now is the time to capitalise on the sector’s renewed profile.

While the sector enjoys this positive spotlight, we need to take the opportunity to attract new talent – and we all have a role to play here. At the recent Solace Summit in Hull, one of our key speakers rightly identified that, as a sector, we could do a lot more to ‘sell’ the positives of a career in local government. It can be so easy to focus on the negatives – the lack of resources, the political challenges, the bureaucracy. But why not focus on the opportunity? In local government, we don’t make widgets – we’re a people and place business. The spectrum of services and interventions we deliver are incredibly diverse in their scope and scale. This creates fascinating and varied career paths and opportunities unlike any other sector. 

We also need to appeal to a far more diverse market of candidates, reaching out into communities to ensure that our workforces reflect the communities they serve, while also ensuring that these opportunities are open to everyone and that our leadership pipeline is truly reflective of society.

How do we appeal to the next generation? According to Ashley Stahl of Forbes, Gen Z – more than any previous generation – are fiercely driven by their values, requiring any potential employer to be aligned with their personal value set and personal drivers. Given that data shows us that by 2025 this group will make up around 27% of workforce, it is imperative that the job market appeals to their choices. In this respect a career in public service should appeal – if we engage effectively.

But furthermore, as I quoted in my 2019 article, according to Dr Lolita D Gray in the American Society for Public Administration’s PA Times, serving public interest, affecting social change and shaping policies that impact society are also key drivers for generations entering the workforce. And it is here where local government is arguably ahead of the game. In this respect there really has never been a better time to showcase some of the ways people can shape the world we live in by starting a career in local government.

Taking climate and sustainability as an example, as COP26 came to a close in Glasgow and an agreement was negotiated by world leaders to push towards a faster move away from fossil fuels, councils and their partners have been taking real steps towards achieving the set targets in local places.

As part of the event, Solace policy lead for environment and climate change, Sharon Kemp, chaired a showcase of local climate action with the Local Government Association. ‘Pass the Planet’ was an event which showcased leading examples of local climate action on the COP26 goals. Carmarthenshire CC presented their ‘Walk the Global Walk’ project detailing the development of a global citizenship education programme using funding from the European Commission and Cllr Stephen Cowan, leader of Hammersmith and Fulham LBC, presented ‘Climate Action Through Strategic and Cultural Change’, detailing their aim to mainstream climate across all their priorities and in doing so change the culture of the organisation.

For anyone potentially considering a career in local government, these examples show just how influential their role could be in affecting social change at a local level. As a sector, the pandemic has shown how local government can mobilise and adapt to change quickly and successfully.

Now we need to harness this renewed appreciation to promote the sector in terms that diverse generations entering the workforce will understand and welcome. n

Nicola Chiverton is managing consultant, interim team at Solace.