#Localgovlife – Shining a light on people in the public sector


17 Jun 2019

#Localgovlife – Shining a light on people in the public sector

As a privileged resourcing partner to the public sector, our executive teams work to find, excite and secure talented individuals into social care roles daily. Julie Towers, our Managing Director, gives the Penna view on the motivations behind a career in local government public service. 

BBC Panorama took a close look at adult social care provision at Somerset Council. The programme painted a picture of residents in need, Council staff doing their best in difficult conditions, and entirely stretched budgets.

Somerset turned a mirror on wider issues in the local government arena, faced by the 16% of the UK workforce who are employed in the public sector. What Panorama also demonstrated was the effort, professionalism and dedication of the council teams to their work.

Our partnerships with councils UK-wide means we understand the huge breadth of services provided by a local authority – one respondent to our recent MJ Chief Executive survey mentioned that all communication must span ‘all staff in every one of our 500 services’.  

So, what’s it really like to work in this environment?

Difficult work, done with pride

Working in local government does involve dealing with constant change, financial pressures and realities of difficult services to deliver. Despite funding cuts, local authorities are experiencing an unprecedented ‘surge in demand for children’s services, adult social care services and homelessness support’ [1].

Yet when you ask local government employees about their enduring motivation to work in a sector which frequently feels the burn of negative headlines and central government ire; it’s the challenging nature of the work which is mentioned as a positive. The LGA recently published an e-book detailing insights from public servants, such as;

‘I believe the fabric of society is strengthened by the existence of resilient, motivated public service organisations that are proud to shout about the achievements they deliver together with their citizens.’ [2] 

It is resilience which often characterises the type of individual who enters public service. Penna Managing Director Julie Towers put it;

‘It never fails to impress me that despite these seemingly intractable problems we still find inspiring and determined leaders who want to take these challenging roles on.’

A visible impact

A clear source of pride for many local authority workers is the visible impact they see for their local area and its residents.

In today’s globalised world, local government has a grounded appeal. A Director of Place can walk down a street and see the impact of their role, physically and on residents. Similarly, a social care professional can see the difference their work is having for those in need, and their families.

It’s this desire to make an impact in a locality and for the most vulnerable which drives many public sector workers. As Chief Executive of South Staffordshire Council Steve Winterflood put it;

‘The public sector ethos is not a myth, it’s a reality and at the heart of everything we do in local government. It has created a sense of fairness, dedication, accountability and honesty.’ [3]

Equality and D&I

There’s no denying that the gender pay gap still exists in the public sector, but it is lower than that of the private sector (15%) by two percent points. The majority in the public sector are women too; 59% of workers are female [4]. In leadership roles, 4 in 10 of all senior positions are now held by women [5].

While the sector looks relatively attractive from a gender equality perspective – there is still much work to be done to increase levels of broader diversity. A recent Guardian article found ‘In the UK, 13% of people are from a black, Asian or other minority ethnic (BAME) background. Yet only 10% of local government workers… are from a BAME background’ [6]. And at leadership level these numbers become significantly worse.

A workforce which is representative of the people it serves is particularly important in community care. Improved diversity and inclusion is something which many councils have been placing at the top of their HR and recruitment initiatives.

At the recent MJ Forum Penna session Abdool Kara, Director at NAO, asked what the sector were doing to improve D&I. Julie Towers replied; 

'Not enough. It’s clear there is intention and passion to improve diversity, but aspiration is not enough. If we want to make up for lost time we have to have clear action plans that cover attraction, employer value proposition, assessment and selection, development, spotting and fast tracking talent while moving away from competency/experienced based approaches to strengths based approaches – and that’s just for starters.'

Here at Penna we’ve been developing our approach and supporting clients to change bad habits and develop new good ones in their recruitment, including adapting thresholds, expanding longlists, spotting potential internally and externally and using programmatic tools to target BAME passive candidates who may not see local government as a natural career choice.

Commercial opportunity

Local government sometimes operates under the unfair assumptions that its work is not as efficient or effective as private sector providers. Boundary pushing is not always associated with local authorities. Yet, in the face of extreme budget cuts, Councils have had to innovate in order to deliver their services for residents.

According to Steve Winterflood, ‘The public sector has a real opportunity to forge a new approach, something that takes the best from private sector models, but also retains the public sector ethos.’ [7]

Alternative delivery models – such as arm’s length management organisations capable of delivering profitable services for the council – are gaining popularity, and there’s a real opportunity to show commercial mentality in the public sector. Our recent development centre approaches have been designed to test for commercial skills as a priority. Most of our clients want to know that their staff and managers have the commercial skills needed to drive change and innovation whilst remaining focused on the outcome being for the benefit of the community.

Sharing the good news

Life in public service isn’t always easy. As the recent Panorama programme demonstrated – local government workers have to weigh their dwindled budgets against the severity of resident need constantly. Given the level of resident demand for Council services, the need to recruit into the sector is critical.

Despite the challenges, there’s plenty to recommend a career in local government.  Our Penna teams are proud to partner with Councils daily to recruit new talent into the sector and develop existing leaders.  

Julie Towers is Penna Managing Director.






[4]Gender Pay Gap reporting, Parliament researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN07068/SN07068.pdf