Hello PPMA members and friends
If there is one thing we can all learn from the last few years in local government, it is that any prediction we make about the shape and scope of our sector at the beginning of the year is certain to be overtaken by a new agenda for change by the time December comes.
There is, however, one certainty which applies to every council in the twelve months ahead which is that we have no chance of moving to new models of delivery of public services without the right people willing to do the right jobs.
Here, faced with a workforce which has been stretched, challenged and, in some cases, derided in the media for their work, leaders in local government have a tough job on their hands.
It’s vital then, that before getting caught up in the intensity of the forecasting and corporate planning which will set the path for our organisations that every leader takes time out to think about what they must do to ensure their organisation emerges with people who are engaged and ready to perform.
Learning from my experience and that of colleagues across the sector I think there are four areas every leader should have on their agenda in order to succeed.
The first job is to reset the way we ask our organisations to approach change.
Historically – and in many cases currently – leaders frame change projects as finite pieces of work with a clear beginning and end point. It is clear that if our organisations are to work effectively in the future, we cannot approach change with this mindset. Leaders need to be clear that managing and living with change is part of the day job, not something which is hived off to special project teams.
Approaching change in this way will help with a second challenge, which is ensuring the whole organisation is, as far as possible, engaged with change.
There is plenty of research which shows that the smartest innovation and best ideas about how to improve or change the way we work nearly always comes from those who are working closest to the customer or are involved in service delivery every day.
That means planning and delivering change isn’t just a job for leadership teams and the corporate support functions like HR, but a business-wide activity. Framing the challenges ahead and involving people in finding the solutions is the best way for leaders to provide purpose in the face of change and involvement which reduces barriers to that change being implemented.
A third area of focus is for leaders to be clear about the capability they need to support the organisation in future.
Part of this is about understanding the new skills they will need as organisations move to new ways of designing, delivering and buying in services. But more significant is having clarity around the specific behaviours which will be key to working in a more fluid, less siloed organisation in partnership with a greater number of third, public and private sector providers of services. We have to be honest with ourselves from top teams downwards, that given the scale of change demanded of us, the council cannot run with the same people doing things slightly differently.
Being clear about these behaviours is critical to recruiting and retaining the people capability who will support this shift in public service culture which is a necessary part of helping change succeed.
This leads to a fourth critical point which is that leaders cannot expect to build future capability without investment.
Part of this is investment in new skills for the existing workforce who move forward with us and part of this is ensuring our organisations have the infrastructure which will allow our organisations and people to work more effectively. But on top of this, in the face of tougher competition from the private sector – and even the civil service who are announcing their intention to create higher paid roles – to recruit the right people with the right skills, we need to ensure we are investing effectively in pay and reward so we can attract and retain the talent we need for the future.
A final job for leaders in the year ahead is to understand the importance of standing up for the value their organisation brings to the community and celebrating their professional successes of which there are many in nearly every council. This is vital, not just to counter the unhelpful narrative of councils being wasteful and behind the times which shapes perceptions of the sector, but also so that we can collectively position our sector as attractive place to work, which offers opportunity and the chance to make a real difference to people lives.
This, above all else, is critical to getting the talent we need to support the sector into the future.
Barry Pirie, PPMA President and Associate Director, People and Business, Wiltshire Council