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A critical role for HR in local government in 2023

Gordon McFarlane, president of the Public Services People Managers Association and assistant director in Leicestershire County Council examines recruitment in the public sector.

With so many areas of the UK economy wracked by labour disputes, it’s with some relief that in local government we’ve started the year with relative stability.    A provisional two-year funding settlement for councils has brought a degree of certainty over our finances and an increase in overall funds. A pay offer worth around 10.5 per cent for the lowest paid council workers was accepted by two of the three recognised trade unions before that, and now even the Treasury is suggesting to pay review bodies (whilst recognising the independence of local government negotiations) that in 2023-4, pay rises need to keep pace with the private sector.    That, however, is as far as the good news goes.    As local authorities grapple with the budget gaps caused by rising demand for public services, rising costs and under-funding, the real story of 2023 will be how we deal with the challenge of service rationalisation and reorganisation.

A fragile workforce. It is a particularly fragile time for the local government workforce.    As the Treasury notes in its advice to pay review bodies, there are acute shortages in key professional areas for councils. This isn’t just confined to the social care roles needed to meet increasing demand, but extends to many areas including environmental and professional services where the public sector has to compete with high paying private sector organisations.    This shortage of people combined with high demand for services in turn puts pressure on a workforce which is still recovering from the impact of the pandemic and which is dealing with the new challenge of the cost-of-living crisis.    Then there is the challenge of change fatigue. After a decade of leaders and managers making the ‘more for less’ ask of their people, we have to be realistic about how ready and willing people are for even more change.    Given that these are the very people that we rely on to deliver services, getting the budgets to balance cannot be the only consideration for organisations. We must also have a plan for our people and it is here that HR leaders have a critical role to play in ensuring councils can preserve the integrity and quality of public services through their workforce.

Workforce planning. The first critical area where leaders need the expertise of HR practitioners is in workforce planning. This is a process which ensures an organisation has identified the skills required in the future, is aware of any gaps in the capability it needs and then assesses how realistic different options for change might be, based on the availability of those skills.

Without bringing this kind of data and insight into their planning, organisations run the risk of redesigning services which can’t be delivered within the budget or time in question, or which aren’t future proofed.

Delivering change. Much of the public sector workforce of 2023 operates in a way which is largely unrecognisable from the beginning of this decade, as hybrid and fully remote home working has replaced desk-bound office working.

While HR policy has caught up to accommodate this change, the majority of us are still on a journey of culture change with our leaders, managers and staff groups.    If any new changes to the way our people work together are to succeed, organisations will need to invest in the capability to lead and manage change, build teams and sustain organisational culture consistently in this new environment.    Identifying how that capability will be developed across the organisation and then putting a plan in place to deliver it will be a critical task for leaders and their HR teams – and not just as a one-off.

Employee value proposition. Every organisation has an employee value proposition – the unique set of benefits that employees get in return for working there – and the ones who review and proactively manage theirs typically find it easier to recruit and retain.    The combination of organisational change, the need for people to earn enough money and the abundance of other employment opportunities, mean that employers can’t afford not to focus on their EVP and how it can be strengthened and better communicated as a tool for talent retention and attraction.    There’s more to an EVP than simply the provision of a core set of pay and benefits. The extent to which an organisation uses and deploys benefits to meet challenges – such as the cost-of-living crisis – e.g. targeted support for specific groups such as those with caring responsibilities and the use of employee recognition schemes to underpin culture, all play a role in showing you are an employer worth working for.    EVP is also driven by the quality of the employee experience of key organisational events – onboarding, training, reviews, efficient HR administration. It is also shaped by the employer brand: do your people and teams win awards and/or get appropriate recognition for the work they do?    Building a compelling employee value proposition takes planning and effort. But at a time of change, asking yourself what you offer your employees and how can you make that offer more attractive, even within the constraints of the current environment, will lead to valuable returns when it comes to employee engagement, retention and recruitment.

Maximising potential. Another area where HR can make a difference is in ensuring we maximise the talents of the people who already work for us.    Retaining our current workforce is the best way of meeting our future workforce needs i.e. with people who we know are already committed to the values of public service, place and people – all so important to our work.    This also requires actioning a step change in the way we deploy people to roles in our organisations.    For example, in some roles such as finance, HR, IT or project management, the lack of opportunity to progress or get wider experience may prompt people to move on. Looking at talent mobility and development across these teams, allowing opportunities to move laterally or outside to another organisation (e.g. secondments) are great ways of providing career opportunity.    Other roles can benefit from different starting points e.g. recruiting and training apprentices and then moving people into other roles. This can be particularly effective in shortage areas.

Professional development. A final area where HR teams can deliver value is by bringing in learning of how peers across the sector are responding to change and which actions are making a difference in each of the big areas of challenge that we face.

As a sector which has spent the last 10 years delivering transformation, there is a wealth of knowledge available from colleagues who have already lived through the challenges we are going through, including through their professional networks and bodies. HR teams should make professional development a priority for not just for themselves but for managers and leaders across their organisation so they can bring fresh perspectives, sense check their own thinking and build the external support networks which remove risk of isolation and siloed thinking which comes with remote and hybrid working.

Trust the people peopleWhile there can be no doubt that we are in for a tough ride ahead in local government as we adjust further to the economic and funding environment, I am also convinced that it is the expertise of HR teams which will be key to ensuring that at the same time budgets are set, there is a plan in place to ensure our people can deliver the next generation of public services.

Author: Gordon McFarlane, President of the Public Services People Managers Association and Assistant Director at Leicestershire County Council.

Originally published in Government Business.

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