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Financial pressures are taking a toll on council staff

New polling reveals poor training, accountability and overwork in local authorities.

By Samir Jeraj

Councils are suffering from low staff morale and struggling to recruit, according to a report from the Social Market Foundation and Chartered Management Institute. These findings come against a backdrop of local councils going bankrupt and the local government sector as a whole facing unprecedented pressures on finances and services.

The report, “Local heroes? Assessing leadership and management in local government“, points to challenges within councils, too. Over half of leaders and managers surveyed said their workplace was not holding people to account for failures. More than two thirds said there were “critical management obstacles” stopping them from doing their jobs. One in three leaders believe their senior management is ineffective, while two in five say they are also poor at motivating staff or fail to do so at all.

A potential cause of these challenges is that managers, on average, are being inadequately trained. Over three quarters of managers surveyed said they had had some form of training. But their training was largely unaccredited and amounted to an average of two to four days a year, compared to a UK average of six training days for management training.

“This research paints a worrying picture, but leadership and management failure [are] not inevitable,” said Anthony Painter, director of policy at the Chartered Management Institute. “Investment in quality leadership and management and reinforcing that capability relentlessly will help navigate stormy waters and is ultimately an investment in communities.”

At Surrey Heath Borough Council, which is used a case study in the report, a new CEO appointed in 2021 managed to make significant improvements in the following two years, according to the Local Government Association. Improving morale and engagement and becoming “people-focused” enabled the organisation to transform itself structurally and improve its performance as a council.

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The authors recommend that that government should design a “comprehensive 10-year workforce strategy for local government” together with more funding for councils, which they say would help with recruitment and retention of staff. They also want to see a “leadership academy” created to improve the quality and consistency of leadership and management training in local government.

The report was compiled from a survey of 1,000 public-sector leaders and managers across the UK with Opinium, as well as the findings of a roundtable on leadership and management in local government convened by the Social Market Foundation.

[See also: Council bankruptcy tracker: authorities under increasing financial strain]

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