Focused approach needed to address council shortages

Skills Council would help solve crisis over retention and attract new blood

Recruitment and retention in the public sector has hit the headlines with
the release of the Audit Commission’s latest report (News, 3 September). It is
the perennial crisis story of public employers striving to attract the best
talent. But the real picture is more complex and begs the question: which
crisis are we dealing with exactly?

While the NHS and central government agencies can speak for themselves,
local government has its own distinctive characteristics. It has selective
recruitment and retention problems in the middle ranks of some professions and
certain geographical areas – most notably, the South East.

Problems are becoming increasingly severe in some areas, and there is a
major need to confront the age profile of the workforce by recruiting younger
staff.

The Audit Commission suggests a number of proposals for local employers,
central government and national bodies, designed to re-invigorate the public
sector ethos and make working for the public sector more rewarding.

However, there are specific actions that need to be taken by local
authorities in response that will not be addressed by improved recruitment
strategies and better working environments. The Employers Organisation intends
to work with the Audit Commission and others to develop policies that will work
for local government.

In many professions that are more or less unique to local government –
public safety work such as trading standards or building control, for instance
– there are problems in bringing new, suitably qualified people into the
workforce. Better co-ordination is needed to develop personal development
programmes and provide training opportunities.

It would help if local government had a sector Skills Council to lead the
development of professional qualifications in partnership with relevant prof-
essional bodies. We will continue to lobby government to put such an
organisation in place.

It also cannot be denied that a clear career path in critical local
government professions could be enhanced in some cases by an ability to provide
more flexible rewards for the best staff. We are helping local government to
confront this sticky issue of pay. Pay system modernisation, based perhaps on
newly developed competency and appraisal systems, will be a central issue for
councils during the next few years.

Although the resources available are limited, better value for the pay bill
and suitable rewards for the best performers need to form part of the reward
pattern. Greater flexibilities have already been built into the national pay
structure to encourage this, but more work needs to be done.

An important focus for this achievement will be the proposed National Joint
Commission on Local Government Pay and related issues that form part of the
Acas-suggested settlement of the recent pay dispute.

The unions may strongly believe that recruitment problems in local government
affect the lowest paid jobs, but local employers know that this isn’t usually
the case. Councils need to plan for where the problems really hit them.

The Employers Organisation feels that improved recruitment and retention
policies must be developed as part of a much more strategic approach to HR
management in local government that places people at the heart of the mission
to improve services. In our recent publication, Productivity, Performance &
Improvement, for example, we have been exploring the relevance of high
performance HRM practices for local government, and developing an eight-point
plan for priority HR interventions. This includes improved recruitment and
retention policies linked to proper management development, improved team-based
working, and sickness absence management.

We are glad that the Audit Commission agrees that HR management really
matters in local government, but the hard work starts with the development of a
meaningful set of policy recommendations that can eventually deliver this.

By Rob Pinkham, the deputy executive director of the Employers
Organisation for Local Government

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