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MJ Future Forum – Reflections

by Anthony Lewis


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As recruiters, we are privileged to stand alongside people as they pursue their career and life ambitions. For each person, this is unique and what constitutes success is only for that person to judge. This does however, mean we need to guide them in their decision making, helping them weigh up the benefits of the various options in front of them. Unsurprisingly, with the current geo-political and socio-economic situation, people are discerning about career moves. When speaking with senior officers within local government, another layer is added onto this and for many, they are questioning what success in their career actually means, and whether they want to chase the most senior roles within the sector. The vilification and scrutiny of decisions made when faced with questions where there is no easy answer is taking its toll. This is being felt by Chief Executives and senior Directors, with many choosing to leave the sector to pursue life as an interim, to move into the private sector or build a Non-Exec portfolio. With those staying in the sector not wanting to take more senior roles, (especially in certain statutory posts) there’s obvious pressure points.

After ten-plus years of austerity, responding to Covid-19 and now helping communities through a cost-of-living crisis, there is no obvious end in sight for senior leaders. How do they make the right decisions for both their staff and the communities they serve, whilst also supporting elected members to deliver their manifesto? Balancing the political ambition at a local level is just another layer of pressure that faces senior officers within local government.

Tile Hill have been proud to sponsor two retreats for Chief Executives and Senior Officers from local Government over the last four months. At both events, when asked about their greatest concerns looking forwards, ‘workforce resilience and skills shortages’ came out on top. 69% of attendees at the recent MJ Future Forum voted it as their biggest concern.

At Tile Hill we work alongside our clients to recruit people into the more senior roles within the sector, so our comments made earlier in this piece are reflective of that audience. But the challenge to attract and retain people in roles across all levels and professional areas within the sector raises concerns. Part of this is down to the employment brand of the sector, as Matt Prosser, Chief Executive of Dorset Council and President of SOLACE spoke of. He didn’t grow up dreaming of being a council Chief Executive, but once you are in the sector it gets under your skin. This view was shared by the Chief Executive of LB Lambeth, Bayo Dosunmu, who spoke of his journey from central government to local. A career move made with the intention of returning to central government after a few years, however, fast forward four years and he is hooked. Engaging with school age children and those in further education to show them how exciting and purposeful a career in local government can be is just one solution. However, this raises a number of challenges for local government, as attracting talent into the sector extends beyond just employment brand at a time of economic pressure. Pay and reward being one challenge, but also the shift to hybrid working by many employers negates one of the previous advantages the public sector could offer above other sectors around flexible working.

Not many people choose to enter the sector for just pay alone. It is the purpose and desire to make a difference in society that draws people in and importantly, helps to retain them as both Matt Prosser and Bayo Dosunmu spoke of. How we support people through their career in the sector is part of this, helping fast track those who show the desire and aptitude, through to helping those who see career success as becoming the best technical professional in their space. Never has there been a more important time for the sector to invest in its staff and its teams, to build engagement and help people to see how their career can advance. Tile Hill is proud to sponsor awards such as the MJ’s Rising Star Award, and every year we are inspired by the talent that exists in the sector. Beyond this, we support the RTPI with their Chief Planners of Tomorrow programme, and again we are in awe of the talent and passion that exists and the desire to make society better. However, we are at risk of losing this talent, and quashing this passion with the pressure that is building, and the scrutiny that surrounds decisions. Creating the psychological safety for people to learn and fail is pivotal to individual growth, which in turn will lead to sector improvement. (For anyone interested, Matthew Syed’s interview on the High Performance podcast explores this topic). With the Government and DLUHC suggesting some common themes around information flow and governance in decision making when looking into Liverpool City Council, Thurrock Council, and others, it is no wonder why that pressure is felt by Senior Officers and how that can then transcend into the wider organisation.

In part, this is why Tile Hill partnered with Dr Michael Humann, a Forensic Psychologist from the University of Liverpool, for our session at the MJ Future Forum. Dr Humann specialises in elite decision making in high pressurised scenarios and was a perfect fit to provide some thoughts and tips on how to make more effective decisions. When coupled with the session on how to avoid a visit from m’learned friends run by Mark Greenburgh and Rachel McKoy, it shines a spotlight on the importance of good governance surrounding decision making. Dr Humann was only able to skate over the themes of his presentation with the time allowed, but the Ground Trust framework he introduced alongside the Five F’s, gave some insights into the tools that can be deployed and the reflective practice that will benefit individuals and the sector. In some capacity, it could be likened to the reflective practice the airline sector swears by when reviewing black box data following near misses.

Local government, and the wider public sector, deserves the best talent, and in many parts of the country this talent exists. The challenge now is to retain it and help people to achieve their career goals, supporting their growth, and in turn boosting the employment brand of the sector and giving people the confidence to take on the most senior roles in the sector, and how doing so can make a difference to the lives of those they employ and the communities they serve. Coupled with this is a need to look for talent in new and different places. Bayo Dosunmu spoke of the challenge that exists in people moving from central to local government, in part due to a lack of trust and understanding between parts of the public sector, but also as a result of recruitment processes that do not allow people to demonstrate the transferability of their skills. This theme can also apply for those in the private sector who wish to move across. We as recruiters need to work alongside our local authority partners to design recruitment processes that are inclusive and allow the skills of individuals from different sectors to shine through, whilst also supporting the organisation and elected Members to take what may appear to be bold decisions in hiring from outside of the traditional mould. In doing so, we can unlock more diverse and deep talent pools, and help tackle the workforce resilience concerns whilst offering people meaningful careers.

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