The best job in local government

What is the best management job in local government? A fulfilling role in children’s services helping children to find homes and education? Working in regeneration helping to turn around disadvantaged areas? Not according to new research. Most local government managers feel disrespected and insecure, with only one department in the sector retaining a sunny outlook – HR.

A survey of more than 850 senior local government officials reveals that abuse from the public is widespread, bullying by colleagues is rife and work is hampered by bureaucracy. Managers in virtually every local government role feel stressed and undervalued, the Local Government Chronicle research shows.

When asked for a word or phrase to describe the way they felt about the role of the manager in local government, almost half said “frustrating”. In contrast, only 8% of the respondents said they felt respected. Finance staff reported experiencing the most difficulty with bureaucracy (49%), while adult social care managers are the most frustrated with their role (71%).

But HR managers cast some light on the gloomy picture, feeling more respected than most managers (20%) and less stressed than most other specialisms (43%). In contrast to the belief that HR departments are generally undervalued by business colleagues, most HR manager respondents in local government think their function has grown in influence (70%).

And HR managers tend to have the best work-life balance, the research shows, with 70% of respondents scoring it at eight out of 10 or above.

Alan Warner, corporate director of people and property at Hertfordshire County Council, said the positive results probably come from HR managers having one of the best jobs around. “We have change, variety, tough professional issues and a line to the chief executive,” he said. “We can get things done and make a difference.”

Warner, former chairman of public sector HR group the Society of Chief Personnel Officers (Socpo), said the trend is on the up as more organisations are realising that they can not be successful without good, strong HR management. “Who wants a pessimistic HR director anyway?”

Warner was more concerned about the respondents’ views on bullying, which painted a grim picture of harassment across UK councils.

The research shows that 18% of managers had witnessed bullying by other managers and 21% had seen bullying by councillors.

One in six women said they had been bullied by colleagues in the past year, almost double the rate for men. About 7% of women had taken time off for stress in the same period – again more than double the rate for men.

Warner said that bullying to this degree has been around in workplaces for a long time, but he stressed that the important thing is for people to feel able to do something about it, and feel confident that their organisation will take the problem seriously.

“This is one of those areas where having a policy is a baseline – the messages about zero tolerance and proper behaviour must come form the top,” he said.

Rosalie Ward, national local government officer at public sector union Unison, said the backdrop of continual change in the public sector was a major cause of bullying.

“There has been a sharp increase in workloads and delegated responsibility, but the number of chief officers has been cut and this has resulted in longer working hours and stress, which often leads to bullying behaviour,” she said.

Ward said local government employers must start tackling the “male dominated, long hours, cut- throat culture” otherwise the bullying will get worse. “Urgent action is needed to change this culture and stamp out this problem, but if employers fail to do this Unison will take legal action on behalf of any member who has been bullied at work,” she said.

Steven Sumner, health and safety policy adviser at the Employers Organisation for Local Government, said there is “a huge amount” of information to help employers to tackle bullying.

“If you tap in bullying to Google you get over two million results,” he said. “We would also advise local authorities to sign up to the Health & Safety Executive’s stress standards. Bullying and harassment will result in poor working relations, which leads to stress.”

But it is not all bad news. Despite the worries about bullying, abuse and bureaucracy, most local government managers would recommend a career in local government, the survey shows.

Jan Parkinson, Gateshead Council’s strategic director for HR and president of Socpo, told researchers: “The fact that 80% of managers would recommend a career in local government is very positive considering the image problem we often think we have. Staff are our best ambassadors.”

HR is the best place to be

How local government managers feel (overall)
8% feel secure
9% feel respected
57% think they are making a difference to local people
22% of managers have a very poor work-life balance,
20% have witnessed bullying by colleagues in the past year
21% more have seen bullying by councillors in the past year
80% would recommend a job in local government.

How local government HR managers feel

20% feel respected
70% think HR has grown in influence
70% have good work-life balance
89% would recommend a job in local government
43% are less stressed than other specialisms.

Source: Local Government Chronicle

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