Local authorities eye genuine transformation with continued austerity freeze
Local authorities have endured the last eight years in a permanent state of austerity. The resilience, determination, commitment and creativity displayed should be highly commended in whichever leadership sphere you may be in.
This has led to exceptionally lean executive director structures at a time where there continues to be much to do and often in uncharted territory.
While there is a general feeling that these core structures are stable, many are looking to flexible interim resource for the expertise and capacity to efficiently flex with emerging trends and seasonal requirements.
The conversations I’ve had with local government leaders have commonly identified five focus areas, which shed some light on the dynamics that are driving the evolution of how the public sector operates and delivers its services:
Commerciality with a conscience
Austerity has put balancing the books at the top of the agenda for some time. Local authorities have done exceptionally well to explore new ways of generating a surplus, whether through identifying alternative sources of income or making better use of their assets. But, as most of the low hanging fruit has been pinched, there is still more work to be done.
As such, leadership teams are looking at how they can inject even more commercial thinking into their operations. That said, they acknowledge that the process requires balance and patience. While some efforts towards greater commerciality work well and can ultimately improve services, other initiatives can fall short of expectations and, in some instances, create new pressures.
With that in mind, the public sector will still be on the hunt for those with private sector experience that can offer fresh insight and new ways of thinking. But, we should expect any talent searches this year to be caveated. Now, professionals with a cultural understanding of the public sector will be a priority so not to lose sight of their fundamental values and purpose.
We’ve seen ‘Director of Commercial’ roles being created in recent years to deliver such changes. However, this has often been isolated within organisations with little connection to other directorates. The next 12 months will see the role mature further and become better integrated and, in turn, deliver better results.
Picking the right path to transformation
People services continue to face the perfect storm of resource challenges, rising demand and a rigorous regulatory environment. New structures, alternative delivery models, integrated services also continue at a pace. Meanwhile, the new Ministerial reshuffle will deliver an integrated health and social care department in which social care has an equal ministerial-level footing.
Pressure is mounting for local authorities to transform their operations to better manage demand for services. A fundamental part of that change will be in using technology to empower people and communities to be able to fulfil some services themselves.
A core function for these directors will be to triage this fundamental technology-driven project and programme work. Local authorities are looking for experts to be able to get stalled projects kick-started again, but also help take an objective view when certain projects should be accelerated or halted as better quality information and data is derived.
Re-engaging inside and out
Austerity has turned many local authorities inwards. Quite rightly, their focus has been to best manage the impact of budget cuts on services and ensure sustainability.
Executive leaders now want to seize the moment and consider their communications strategies again. After years of battening down the hatches, they want to lift aspiration and reconsider how they form a narrative for the public and articulate their benefit to local society, but also take some time to engage with and listen to their own staff internally and ensure that they are motivated and brought in to the vision.
We expect senior marketing and communications professionals to start making moves in the sector and those with private sector credentials to consider a switch.
Thin on the ground in the numbers department
Finance teams have often been some of the worst affected by austerity. Their numbers have been pared down dramatically.
The recent Carillion collapse will reaffirm local authorities’ concerns over the challenges facing their finance, commissioning and procurement teams. Fears have already been growing over their ability to conduct thorough due diligence on suppliers. Expect supply chain specialists and those with experts in managing risk to start landing roles.
Regeneration and place
‘Place-making’ is the mot-du-jour. Local authorities are turning their attention to creating areas that are integrated and have community at their heart. The ‘island’ industrial parks disconnected from communities and one dimensional regeneration schemes are a thing of the past with new opportunities, ambitions and aspirations there to be grasped.
This shift to longer-term objectives is encouraging and points to a sector that has stabilised and beginning to find its feet, despite testing conditions. Regeneration professionals from commercial and residential property in the private sector will be in demand this year to help achieve those ambitions. We’ll also see a scramble for those prized public sector professionals that have already helped other authorities in ‘place-making’.