England & Wales, Global, Scotland HR, workforce and communications, Personal and organisational development

Why work in local government? The future of local government careers in the UK

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Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Dr Greg Stride from the LGIU’s Local Democracy Research Centre dives into the pressing challenges and solutions shaping local government careers in the UK. With a workforce in decline and vacancies on the rise, how can innovative recruitment strategies and a focus on career progression reignite interest in crucial public service roles?

Why do you work in local government? That is not a rhetorical question. Maybe you’ve found yourself asking the same question at some point or another, and there are probably as many answers to this question as there are readers of this article. I know my answer for why I started working in the sector: I wanted to help deliver democracy from the front line, and my experiences from then have led me to where I am today. Maybe your answer is similar, maybe it couldn’t be more different, it’s a fun question.

But it’s also a serious question. Around 2 million people work in local government across the UK, four times as many as in the civil service. That’s a lot of people delivering crucial services across the country, but it’s not as many as the approximately 3 million who were doing the same roles in 2010. The local government workforce has changed, mostly by getting smaller, and recruitment and retention have become perennial issues across the sector.

The LGA reported in 2022 that 94% of councils across England had experienced issues with recruitment and retention. Our own survey in Scotland found that 97% of senior council figures reported difficulties with recruiting the staff necessary for essential service provision. When we opened the question up, as we did in our survey of senior council figures in England earlier this year, we found that recruitment and retention issues are not only present across frontline services but equally across council leadership roles and specialist technical positions, such as transport planning or law.

In our interviews with Monitoring Officers in England last year, the statutory officers responsible for legal compliance across English councils, they made it clear that despite their serious commitment to the role, the inadequate pay and lack of recognition meant that for them, but particularly the generation that would – in theory – follow them, a career in local government was looking less and less attractive. We saw similar issues with electoral administrators, for whom the pressures of the job, even a job they were extraordinarily dedicated to, were becoming difficult to manage. How can local government keep up with the changing workforce pressures?

Public sector workforce plans

In public policy terms, this is not an abstract problem. Without people to take up local government careers, local governments can’t provide essential services or shape places around local communities. We might be headed to a world where this is all done by robots, but we’re not there yet.

In other areas of public policy, this has been taken seriously, albeit belatedly. The NHS workforce plan, published in 2023, made plans to increase the size of the NHS workforce from around 1.5 million in 2021–22 to around 2.4 million in 2036–37. Retention, as well as recruitment, makes up a key part of the plan, and ensuring NHS staff have careers that work for them is central.

The lessons baked into the NHS plan about pay, work-life balance, progression, and development are equally important for local government. I would like to focus on the last two points (progression and development). Local government suffers from the same issue as many other areas of public service: if people find they can no longer move up, they may be forced to move out.

Local government careers

“Local government needs to be promoted as a credible and rewarding career of choice for new entrants.”

These words, from a senior local government figure answering our finance survey, although definitely true, raise the question of how exactly to promote local government careers. Assuming that pay and working conditions stay the same, which we might hope they won’t, what options are there for promoting local government as a career? We need to increase demand for the available roles if we hope to fill the ever-growing number of vacancies, so how do we do it?

For an instructive look at one way this can work, we can look at how other parts of the public sector do it. The civil service has a good reputation as a graduate employer, evidenced by the thousands of applications it gets every year for its fast stream programme and its high placement in the Times graduate employer rankings. The local government equivalent, the National Graduate Development Programme fills fewer places, and although doing well on the Times’ influential rankings, it is not a big enough pipeline for new talent into the sector, considering the scale of the challenge. Teach First and Police Now are both important national campaigns that demonstrate how local government could advertise its careers to people who may not be aware.

One similarity between all of these successful programmes is that they explain how a graduate can move up in an organisation, where they might expect to be in a few years time. In local government, this is slightly harder to answer because there are so many different ways to progress. But an explanation of where graduates could expect to end up could help to promote the sector.

Graduate employment is not the only type that matters, but it is instructive. Local government careers have key strengths that other areas of the public don’t have: you can work anywhere, and the diversity of different roles is enormous. A graduate could reasonably expect to work across a range of policies greater than any other part of the public sector, with leadership positions available across the board.

A local government workforce plan

Earlier this year the Social Market Foundation, based on research across local government, advocated for a national workforce strategy for local government, a leadership academy, and a direct entry system for people looking to enter local government from outside. The workforce strategy, in particular, would go some way towards directing minds in central government towards the scale of the problem.

Given that this issue is across local government, there is a strong case for a national campaign that illustrates the available careers, a concerted effort by local and central government to demonstrate the huge range of available opportunities – more diverse across place and specialism than any other sector I can think of. This should focus on ensuring that there is upward progression outlined and guarantees of training and development within organisations, with the top roles explained in detail.

For an example of what this could look like, in Ireland the Local Government Management Agency (an agency of the central government) and local authorities have created an excellent website outlining and promoting the available careers as part of a national campaign. The LGA career guide for school leavers is a good template, and could be extended to include information for people at any stage in their careers.

Thinking more outside the box, this could also include systematic secondments between local government and other public sector employers, such as the civil service or the NHS. There is an evident gulf between local government and central government, and that could be narrowed if more people moved between the two.

Equally there is an over-centralisation of policy roles in England around London, and local government should be a key vessel for moving talent around the country. It is in the interests of levelling up to ensure that people can have fulfilling careers wherever they want to live, and local government is a way to make that happen.

Finally, the central government could help by promoting local government as an equal partner. Local government careers should be seen in the same light as civil service careers or careers in the NHS, and a central government that understands the vital importance of local government could work to promote them in the same way.

Local government careers already have undeniable strengths: you can genuinely help to change lives for the better within your own community. The sector, together with central government, now needs to focus on translating these strengths into demand for careers to meet the inevitable increasing pressures on the workforce over the next decades.

Interested in more on the topic of workforce planning? LGIU members can access:



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