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MENTOR - PICKING COURSES THAT REALLY WORK

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Which management qualification will take you to the top of local government? Sally O'Reilly checks the options...
Which management qualification will take you to the top of local government? Sally O'Reilly checks the options

If you are keen to reach the top in local government, getting a respected management qualification makes sense. Increasingly, selection boards for senior posts are looking for candidates who have a strategic overview, both in terms of running an organisation and analysing the political issues that affect local democracy. A masters degree in management can give you just that.

But deciding what kind of qualification to go for isn't easy - there is a huge variety of courses available. Most MBAs are focused on private organisations, rather than publicly accountable bodies such as local authorities, though the University of Birmingham does run a prestigious MBA geared to public sector management. Another alternative is to study for a Master of Public Administration (MPA), which should cover much of the same ground as an MBA in general management terms but is specifically geared to developing management skills in the public sector.

'If you feel undecided about staying in the sector and might consider a switch to a private sector career later on, then an MBA might be a better choice, as this is still a more widely recognised qualification,' says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, which accredits MBAs and some though not all of the MPA courses now available in the UK - the association's website (www.mbaworld.com) is a good place to begin. 'But an MPA will suit someone who has decided they would definitely like to develop their career in the public sector,' she adds.

Before embarking on a public administration course, you need to think about how this period of study fits into your career. Ms Purcell warns against plunging in too early. The qualification is aimed at people who have already learned a lot about public sector management the hard way - by doing it first hand.

'These courses are designed for people who have at least three years management experience,' she stresses.

The next step is to choose the right programme for you. There are around 30 different public administration programmes available in the UK. Liverpool University has been running an MPA course for two decades, making it the veteran of the field and many more have been set up in the last few years. Ms Purcell suggests looking at the Association of MBAs website to see which courses are accredited - those which are will have many of the core elements of an MBA and give participants a solid background in management theory. She also advises checking out any MBA which is geared towards public sector management, such as that in Birmingham.

This advice makes sense to Jane Scullion, assistant chief executive, strategy, performance and governance, at Stockport MBC. She took an MPA at the University of Warwick six years ago and has since landed her job with Stockport. She found the course stimulating and inspiring, though hard work.

'I was looking for a combination of intellectual stimulation and a cross-fertilisation of ideas with others and not just people in local government,' she says. 'And there were a wide variety of people on the course - health service managers, chief executives of primary care trusts, senior people from the voluntary sector - all the various partners that we work with.'

Ms Scullion also welcomed the chance to see local government management from an international perspective.

'I studied in Brussels and the US; it was very horizon-widening,' she says. 'We actually travelled to the US just after 9/11 and looked at the role of public services and how they should respond to emergencies. This raised a lot of very big questions about ethics.'

Ms Scullion believes doing the course helped raise her game. 'I think the qualification consolidated and deepened my management experience, and made me realise that I wanted to work in the policy field,' she says.

And there was another major bonus too; the chance to build a network of people in a range of disciplines who she has stayed in touch with ever since.

As for the expense (MPA fees start at about£6,000, not including expenses), Ms Scullion says an MPA is money well spent.

'Local authorities should be prepared to invest in senior management people. They ought to be well trained - after all, people in the private sector are highly qualified,' she says.

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