Recruiting high-calibre graduates is a priority for every local authority - but that does not make it easy. Councils have to publicise themselves in a tough job market, and compete with private sector employers including well-known blue-chips. While efficient recruitment systems can help boost an organisation's image, a poor operation can have the opposite effect.
So, what is the best way to update your recruitment process? Taking a strategic overview and using online recruitment tools makes sense. Otherwise, council HR departments can be overwhelmed with applications and find it hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Jonathan Flowers, director of recruitment company Veredus, says: 'A good process can minimise the risk of a wrong appointment.
A mixture of tests, not just interviewing, adds real value.'
Psychometric testing is useful, he believes, though it should never be used to disqualify a candidate, but rather to identify useful areas to probe at interview.
Essex CC has brought in HR consultancy SHL to help develop a more sophisticated recruitment strategy. The council introduced psychometric assessment 15 years ago, but wanted to make the system more efficient.
Every year, the number of applications for its graduate training programme is much higher than the number of positions available, and the council was concerned high-potential candidates might be slipping through the net.
'The problem with sorting such applications out manually is that it's not necessarily a fair system,' says Kathy Houlton, senior business consultant at SHL.
'Essex had a very detailed application form - there were pages and pages of it - and
the HR department was sifting through hundreds of these. This meant there was a chance that good applicants would be missed because the process is subjective if you are working through a huge pile of applications.' Ms Houlton helped the authority to clarify its staffing priorities. 'It's important to understand what the role is and what makes an effective employee,' she says.
Essex now uses online numerical and verbal tests, together with a short, competency-based questionnaire. 'This reduced the number of written applications that the HR team had to deal with,' says Ms Houlton.
The application form was also redesigned to let candidates respond to structured questions within a word limit. Last year, the council used the new systemfor the first time, and the results have been positive.
'The sifting started in the early stages of the process, with some basic killer questions, and the ability tests,' says Sheila Lewis, Essex's senior learning and development consultant. 'After this, we could be sure the candidates were serious about their application.'
And Ms Lewis believes that the new process will also benefit the overall image of the council. 'Not only are the trainees of high calibre, but the processes involved are clear, rigorous and easy to follow,' she says.