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Keeping the workforce motivated

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Local authorities are facing a conundrum: they must motivate employees to deliver ‘more for less’, but they have less money to reward staff.

Not only will the pay freeze have a negative impact on staff morale, but so will any pension reforms and the service cuts that will inevitably accompany budget cuts. The result is that local government looks less and less like an attractive place to work.

How can local authorities expect staff to deliver major change - joint working through Total Place, citizen-focused services or coping with an ageing society - when there is no extra money for training or to reward hard work?

Already, local authorities are concerned about capacity. The most recent Local Government Workforce survey found that only 8% of councils were confident their senior managers had the necessary change management skills, a drop from 17% the year before.

Similarly, only 9% of authorities said they had no skills gap in people management, compared with almost a third the year before.

LGC has highlighted the impact impending tax changes might have on the turnover of chief executives, but that retention problem extends throughout the local government workforce.

Jan Parkinson, managing director of Local Government Employers, is one of those concerned this will be a problem. “I think we will see a big surge of activity [in terms of retirements and departures] after the election,” she said.

The Local Government Association predicts councils will be tempted to reduce salary bills through apparently painless measures such as not filling vacant posts, cutting trainee positions or offering voluntary redundancy. But such approaches can cause problems later on.

Joan Munro, the Improvement & Development Agency’s national adviser on workforce strategy, pointed out that this “was the problem in the last recession, where lots of councils offered voluntary redundancy. But people then discover they have no skilled financial staff and end up paying double to buy people with those skills back in”.

The cut in trainee schemes made during the last recession helped to contribute to the current shortage in planning officers, she added.

One solution to this impending shortage of skills is the use of more regional expert teams (see In Practice) which can take the skills that local government does have and spread them a little wider. Another, according to the LGA’s advice published this week, is the use of local centres of excellence.

Indeed, talent management will be as important as skills retention during this difficult period.

The National Graduate Development Programme, which survived a review last year and is set to take on another 80 students in September, will have a role to play alongside councils’ or regions’ own internal talent management schemes.

And, according to Ms Munro, when attracting new employees, councils need to emphasise the non-salary benefits of a local government role, in the same way they emphasise a ‘total reward’ approach for existing staff.

Significant challenges such as tackling unemployment, protecting children and joint working across different agencies should be presented as a plus point, she argued.

“It is about making sure that we sell those [challenges] and are getting the people who aren’t just motivated by high salaries but by making society a better place,” she said.

She added that the key for local authorities would be keeping “an eye on the future as well as the present”. This would mean, for example, not viewing the dearth in planning applications as a reason to get rid of planning trainee schemes or allowing the majority of planning teams to take voluntary redundancy.

Failure to think ahead would mean that when the economy picks up and the construction industry is back on its feet, local authorities would be back to square one with even fewer planners than before.

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