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Tackling the social care talent deficit

Written by: Philip Emms is a consultant within GatenbySanderson’s local government practice
Published on: 17 Jun 2021

While managing and developing talent has always presented challenge to a sector sitting at the heart of community services and government policy, COVID-19 has firmly pressed the reset button for those tasked with workforce planning. We can already see that what was relevant in early 2020 is now supplanted by newer thinking and changed priorities.

Perhaps more than most other services, children’s social care will feel a longer lasting impact from pandemic, lockdowns and time missed from education, particularly in terms of the mental health of our children, young people and families. Conversations with many directors of children’s services (DCS) underline that we have yet to properly understand how this impact will manifest itself. The likely surge in senior leader retirements over the next 12-24 months, from those who have delayed retirement and those now reassessing work and life in general will only add to the challenge. Additional Government pressure and regulatory inspections will further fuel career re-evaluation.

For those at DCS – along with those at assistant director – level and below, planning for future requirements is an urgent need. It was reported in the  Association of Directors of Childrens Services’ DCS Update in March (covering the 12 months to 31 March) that the ‘average length of time served as a DCS, when factoring in cumulative time spent in multiple local authorities as a DCS, is over 3.5 years’. The number of first time DCS reported, particularly those advancing from assistant director (AD) level in councils, gives some indication of new talent progressing into senior roles. In 2021, 12 council ADs progressed to DCS roles; 19 in 2020; and 13 in 2019. As a percentage of total changes in DCS (excluding interim appointments), these statistics represent 54% of permanent changes in 2021 and 2020, and 42% in 2019.

It is encouraging to see that the pipeline of new talent is buoyant, with many authorities appointing ADs into their first DCS role from within the sector. While a ‘serving DCS’ can often be the requirement of a person specification, allowing ADs the chance to step up ensures a wider, more diverse talent pool and an investment in the future. A safe appointment is not always from those making a sideways move.

The focus on new talent should not just be about replenishing those retiring or leaving the sector, however. Investment in developing the leaders of the future – better able to address the challenges that councils, communities, children and young people increasingly face – is critical. Demands are changing and the profession is in agreement that it should seize the opportunity to accelerate innovation in service delivery and embrace technology to increase integration, maximise the crucial role that schools and third sector play, and capitalise on the overwhelming sense of community spirit. These opportunities suggest that a different type of leader is needed.

Better planning in the talent pipeline of future DCS candidates, as well as future ADs and other levels, means we can also create a more diverse and inclusive leadership; this includes diversity of thinking and professional backgrounds. For a long time, those holding DCS roles have largely come from the social care profession. However, with a greater focus on system leadership, rather than specific service leadership, is now the time to question this norm? Could future leaders in children’s services currently be working in other disciplines, including education, health and the third sector, where many organisations are familiar with working in partnership to influence positive outcomes?

GatenbySanderson are privileged to be working with The Staff College to support the ‘upon programme’, with the first cohort running in 2020-21 and cohort two commencing in the autumn of 2021. The programme is designed to grow the UK’s talent pool of future DCS and also help recently appointed directors thrive in their new roles. Additionally, it aims to broaden candidates’ professional expertise and equip them with the skills and experience required to become tomorrow’s leaders of children’s services.

Critically, broadening diversity must address the need to ensure leaders better reflect the communities that they serve. We hear words like ‘co-production’ and that we need to ‘ensure the voice of children, parents and carers are core to service provision’. We also hear, however, that families and children do not always feel that councils understand their needs because they do not interact with people who look and sound like them, and more often do not understand the challenges of the communities they live in.

Councils increasingly recognise this and want to address these talent pipeline issues.  Available data suggests that the percentage of those from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups in DCS positions is low, and certainly below average relative to the whole population. Underrepresented groups tell us that there are barriers to their progression, - both actual and perceived – so as recruiters and as a whole sector, we must recognise and address these concerns.

GatenbySanderson has welcomed the opportunity to work with The Staff College’s Black and Asian Leaders Initiative programme to work with emerging talent who have an interest in shaping the future of children’s services and meet the needs of the diverse communities around the country. The goal is to create a cohort of DCS who represent the communities in which we live.

The development of the future leaders in local authorities, be that children’s services or otherwise, must start now. We cannot fix the shortage of a diverse talent group today and this can no longer be about moving chess pieces. We must focus on talent pipelines to equip individuals and give them opportunities to gain the experience they need to become the directors and chief executives of the future.

A systematic approach across the sector to grow talent collectively and not just compete at organisational level is by far the most beneficial for local government. The sector is running short of people and needs to think now about how it fills that deficit.

Philip Emms is a consultant within GatenbySanderson’s local government practice