England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance, HR, workforce and communications

The state of leadership in English local government

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In light of the tumultuous times facing local government in England, the Social Market Foundation has conducted research on the current state of leadership and management in local government across the country. This article unpacks the research findings.

These are tumultuous times for local government in England. In addition to the flurry of financial difficulties that have hit the headlines, the role of local government has been evolving, with a greater emphasis on functions beyond core service delivery, such as “Place making”, and being more anticipatory towards long-term societal challenges like ageing and poverty.

The 49% budget cuts experienced by local authorities in England between 2010 and 2018, the continued real term squeeze, along with growing recruitment and retention challenges, have reduced the scope for local government leaders and managers to lead and manage as effectively as they might. In addition, the rise of new areas of responsibility bring new burdens. Ones that are likely to require new skills from local authority leaders and managers.

A snapshot of the state of leadership and management in local authorities

It was in this context that we set out to understand the current state of leadership and management in local government across the country. We had a particular interest in identifying how widespread good leadership and management practices were across the sector. With the sponsorship of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), we undertook a survey of public sector leaders and managers (with a local government sub-sample), which asked specific questions about the adoption of leadership and management practices that are known to be effective in boosting organisational performance.

Our report, Local heroes? Assessing leadership and management in local government, found that, broadly speaking, good leadership and management practices seem to be as widely employed across local government as they are across the public sector as a whole. We observed that there appeared to be a pattern in the responses to almost every question we asked of survey participants about the implementation of a particular leadership and management practice where they worked. This pattern was:

  • A sizeable minority of respondents would report their organisation as utilising good leadership and management practices very effectively.
  • The most frequently given answer was that a participant’s institution employed good leadership and management practices somewhat well, but not optimally.
  • Evidence of a notable tail of public sector workplaces where there was poor implementation (or indeed in a few cases no use) of well-known and effective leadership and management practices.

We illustrate this with a few data points from the local government respondents, below.

  • When we asked leaders and managers how well the senior leadership in their local authority ensured their organisation succeeds in its functions, 23% reported that they did it “very effectively”, while 44% said the senior leadership in their council was only “somewhat effective”. Most worrying of all, 20% described the leadership to be either “somewhat” or “very ineffective”.
  • Our survey data also showed that a minority of senior leaders were described as setting a clear overall direction and long-term goals “very well” (39%), while a plurality was described as only doing this “somewhat well” (41%) with a tail of respondents saying it was done “poorly” or “not at all” where they worked.

Figure 1: Leaders’ and managers’ perspectives on senior leadership effectiveness

Source: SMF Opinium Survey March-April 2023
  • Reflecting the local government workforce challenges, we found that relatively small proportions of respondents said that the local authority, where they were a leader or manager, recruited (10%), retained staff (22%) or promoted the best people (15%), “very well”.

Figure 2: Performance of  UK local authorities in attracting and retaining talent and promoting the best people

Source: SMF Opinium Survey March-April 2023
  • Only a minority of councils were said by survey participants to be “very good” at addressing staff underperformance. Most were regarded as “somewhat good” and 24% “poor” or “very poor”.

Figure 3: Efficacy of dealing with underperformance and utilising data to manage performance

Source: SMF Opinium Survey March-April 2023

Bringing all local government leadership and management up to the standards of the best

The decidedly mixed picture we found strongly suggests that there is much that could be done to increase the spread and deepen the roots of good leadership and management across local government. Given the clear link between the quality of leadership and management, and the functioning of an organisation, successfully improving both could be expected to lead to:

  • More effective service delivery by local government.
  • A more capable leadership and management cadre to tackle the evolving challenges of “place making” and a more anticipatory approach to problems.

To achieve these outcomes, the report proposes a number of reforms that could help the spread of and embed across local government, good leadership and management practices. Particularly key, in our view, are:

  • The development by Oflog, of a framework for assessing good leadership and management in local government and then for Oflog to use it to evaluate the quality of leadership and management in local authorities.
  • The establishment of a local government leadership academy so that all levels of management in local government can have access to consistent, high-quality leadership and management training.


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