The ‘decade of austerity’, whilst halfway through appears to stretch inexorably onwards. Regardless of who is in Number 10 after the General Election, Local Government will continue to operate in an environment of diminishing funding and increasing demand. The response to an effective overnight drop in income of 30% in 2010 - staff redundancies, outsourcing and sweating assets - is largely done. The next five years will be harder.
What will this mean for the future workforce? Going forward staff will be expected to not only do more for less but think and act in entirely different ways in order to deliver (or influence the delivery of services by others) cost effective, safe and customer focused services. This is a lot to ask of people, particularly after years of change, uncertainty and insecurity.
So what skills will the Local Government workforce of the future need to develop and utilise?
Commercial acumen. Ask twenty people what they think this means and you will get twenty different answers. For some more obvious front line council services ‘being more commercial’ translates as ‘being more like the private sector’. Amazon almost always immediately springs to mind. Managing demand, shifting citizen contact to self-serve and cost effective channels, asking customers how they want to receive services and then designing them accordingly, delighting them along the way. For a social worker this is a harder thing to understand. Or is it? Should social workers be skilled in understanding that prevention not only builds out safeguarding risk but also financial risk?
Strategic thinking. I was recently with a client advising them on a restructure of their senior management team. The conversation turned to ‘strategic’ and ‘operational’ roles, responsibilities and skill sets as though they were completely different things. Are they not two sides of the same coin? Should all staff not be able to flip between doing things right and doing the right things? Should they not work in an environment where they are able and confident to do so? Is strategic thinking – the ‘how’ we all deliver corporate priorities – the sole preserve of the leadership team?
Change management. Change is everyone’s business if local government is to adapt to the new world. There must be a fundamental mind shift amongst staff from ‘this is the way we have always done it’ to ‘do we even do this anymore?’ and if we don’t ‘how can I play a role in enabling things to happen when I do not necessarily control it?’. This is not easy. Clearly the leadership team and HR have a huge role to play in this but this is essentially about changing culture and the way staff approach each and every working day.
The ‘how’ we develop a workforce with these skills is harder than the ‘what’. The implementation of any shift in the skills of a workforce is never easy. But with strong leadership, clear and understood vision and a culture where everyone feels empowered to contribute positively to the change agenda, it is possible.
Nick Cole is a Consultant within the Public Sector practice at Berwick Partners specialising in senior appointments within Local Government.