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FEATURES - END NEGLECT OF STAFF

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How local government values motivate staff is a vital question for anyone trying to modernise. The Local Government...
How local government values motivate staff is a vital question for anyone trying to modernise. The Local Government Pay Commission is the ideal opportunity to show how important progressive employment policies are to the success of modernisation.

People are the most popular part of the council with the public. A recent MORI survey on trust in public bodies threw up generally negative public perceptions about council leadership and management, but council staff were seen as treating people well and equally.

However, the employment implications of the government's reform plans for local government have received scant attention. It will be a pity if the commission is dominated by a row over national versus local bargaining to the detriment of these wider considerations.

The commission will need to take account of the enormous extra pressures on staff as a result of the various local government reforms since 1997. The new decision-making structures, partnerships, and greater customer focus have all had an impact. So has the increasing performance ethos, with best value and now the comprehensive performance assessment.

Lurking behind all this change has been the ever-present threat to staff of outsourcing, privatisation and arm's-length operations. There has been a surprising lack of research on the impact of all this change on morale, motivation and recruitment.

Employment considerations have been largely ignored by the government, for example, when new political structures were introduced, some councils forgot that negotiating structures would need to be revamped. A period of confusion for industrial relations duly ensued.

Legitimate staff fears about the emergence of a two-tier workforce as a result of outsourcing were a running sore for a long period until a robust union campaign persuaded the government to take the protection issues seriously.

The role of local government as an employer is far more important than the attention accorded to it so far. The council is often the larg est employer in an area and can set the standards on good employment practices with those it has a relationship with.

Councils recognise that a skilled, motivated workforce will enable them to deliver both central and local priorities, but how often are employment strategies part of corporate plans? In the debate on outsourcing, the strengths of the in-house worker in the eyes of the public - attributes like continuity and trust - should not be overlooked.

I hope that, as well as addressing the questions of pay and negotiating machinery, the commission will also examine the wider impact of the government's reform programme, how employment strategies are essential to the delivery of corporate priorities and associated issues such as morale, recruitment and retention and training.

Two broad proposals of this sort were recommended by the independent Commission on Local Governance last year - central and local government should jointly fund a recruitment campaign similar to the campaigns for teachers and the police, and a council college should be established. The time has come for ideas to become reality.

Dennis Reed

Director, Local Government Information Unit

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