Careers in and around Local Government

This is an extended and adapted version of a talk for alumni of the National Graduate Development Programme at their first conference 18-19 June 2009.

We’re going to spend a bit of time talking about careers.  If you look in the dictionary you’ll see a definition of career that’s about a purposeful work-based or professional progression in pursuit of specific goals and objectives.  But if you look a bit further down the dictionary you see the definition of the word “career” that says “to move wildly and out of control”.  You can decide which is most accurate.

I’d like to talk to you about four things:

(1) I’d like to congratulate you on your choice of sector to be employed in

(2) I’d like to address the point of: if talent is not enough (the theme of this conference), what are the extra things that you’re going to need, from my perspective

(3) I’d like to talk about planning for your retirement!

(4) And I’d like to talk about Jaffa Cakes.

So let’s see how it goes.

I worked in the private sector for 12 years.  But after a while I did see the light, and moved into LG at Director level as Director of Culture Change at a London Borough, and then as Deputy Chief Executive at Bedfordshire County Council.  After nearly five years of hand to hand change management I fancied a rest so I moved to Veredus where I lead the local government team, helping ensure that each authority we work with gets the right appointment into senior roles, chief executive, director, and AD/Head of Service roles.

I’ll share with you two moments.  In my first week at Lambeth I went round to meet all my staff.  I remember to this day my meeting with the training manager for social services.  Her passion and commitment for helping people do a really a difficult job better was awesome and humbling.  I never saw commitment and purpose like that in the private sector.

The other moment was when a very wise elected member invited this new guy from the private sector along to her surgery, which was held in a really decrepit, cold and crumbling community hall.  One of the people who came to see her was in real distress. Huge sobs, real misery that I hadn’t seen before.  English wasn’t her first language and she was obviously struggling to express herself and had clearly had to summon up a lot of courage to even come.  She sat, trying to control her emotions in front of us and took out of her bag a piece of paper which had been opened, folded, reopened, and refolded so many times that it was starting to come apart in the folds.  It was a letter.  The letter was from the council, the council I worked for, and it had a big word right in the middle, as its subject.  The word was EVICTION.  And she was terrified.  She was our tenant, she’d missed a payment, and our enlightened debt collectors had learned that the best way of sorting things out was to appear to threaten eviction immediately, even though it was the first stage of about ten before that could actually happen, as the councillor sensitively explained.  In the private sector our best customers were the educated well off people who bought lots of our services.  In local government the people who need our services most are incredibly vulnerable.  And it matters so much more.

Two things to take from that.  Get closer to members and understand their experience of the council and the pressures on them.  I have a theory that if you have always worked in a council and progress up the line then the member contact just happens and increases over time.  Paradoxically coming in from outside and spending time shadowing members as part of my induction may have given me better experience of what it’s really like to be a member.  If you can shadow members, do it.

Secondly, you made the right choice.  Congratulations on choosing public service.  You’re in the right place… now what are you going to do with it?

Let’s talk about talent is not enough: what more do you need?

I think the first thing to recognise is that if you look at local authorities today and plan for roles that are in it, and to be like many of the senior folk who are successful now, you‘ll miss the target.  It’s a moving target, and here some of the trends I can see.

“Predictions are difficult, especially about the future”.

When I was your age I read a book by Charles Handy which predicted that the fast track people who were at the core of organisations would work very hard and retire at 40.  So I worked very hard… but the rules changed!

One thing that’s fairly clear is that the model of getting things done is changing pretty fundamentally.  The line management and leadership stuff is going to be there, but the working through partnerships is very important and will become more so.  And working through contracts is going to become more important too, whether that’s commissioning from the third sector, private sector or other public sector bodies, the ability intelligently to specify and manage through contractual arrangements will be key.  I’d suggest that you think about when, over the next five years or so, you’re going to acquire those experiences.

We’re used to thinking about silo mentality in terms of safeguarding versus potholes versus policy officers, and by and large councils are cracking that.  In five years time the silos will be PCTs versus councils versus local policing – it’s clear already and will become more so.  Because local authorities have tackled those issues already, and because we’ve already done shared services – (centralising eg HR support in a siloed organisation is actually shared services, if you think about it), we have a head start.

The next trend I’m seeing is an increasing emphasis on numbers and data.  I see a clear gap between local government and the best of the private sector in terms of use of data, customer insight, data mining, quantitative strategy development.  That gap is going to have to close.  Two things that are interesting:

There’s a business school I know that has a highly regarded MBA and MPA.  They have a really good course on Quantitative methods for strategy.  It was a compulsory core module on the MBA, but an optional module for the MPA.  That made me cross.

We regularly test candidates for senior roles on their verbal and numerical ability, and they are compared to a peer group of senior managers and directors across the public and private sectors.  The pattern which emerges so often it’s embarrassing is that senior local government tend to be quite good on the verbal reasoning stuff… and really poor on the numerical.  It’s a skills issue.  And to the extent that any of you have acquired skills around data analysis, statistics and so on in your studies, hold onto them – you may not need them now but the ability intelligently to read and commission sophisticated analysis will matter increasingly.  We’re going to be so short of cash soon that we’ll need clever segmentation of our customers; evidence-based policy making will become more important, and as a senior manager you’ll need to know enough to check you’re not looking at evidence-based policy making’s evil twin: policy-based evidence-making.

The third thing I want to mention is Governance.  For the last 20 years or so, possibly longer, local authorities have been quite constrained about their structures.  We’re on the verge, through MAAs, total place, prosperity boards and so on, of having some really quite fundamental choices about how we organise local public services.  And as a sector we don’t really have the skills or insights.  There’s some stuff we can borrow form the private sector  where people have thought about how clusters of companies can be brought together to add value, and some serious thought about many different ways in which a corporate centre can add value.  If you’re interested the phrase to google is “parenting advantage”.  The private sector situation can give us a start but our context is much harder and we’ve got some thinking to do.  I worry a bit that we think that “Organisational Development” is actually a posh name for the training team.  Your generation will discover that Organisational Development is inexpressibly more than that, and you’ll have to write the book.

Local government is getting quite good at using management competencies to support development, assess and promote people.  I’m not yet seeing it borrow the concept of Executive Competencies to apply to its top people.  Management competencies talk about coaching staff, for example; executive competencies talk about creating an environment in which coaching flourishes.  High performing executive competencies don’t talk about customer service or consultation, they talk about Empathy.  A really deep empathy with your stakeholders, which makes you hungry to understand and determined to act.  Again, we’re not there yet.

So the key trends to get on top of, if you’re aiming for the future are:

  • Getting things done through contracts and partnership as well as line management
  • Sophisticated and relevant quantitative analysis
  • Governance and organisation at the level of local public services
  • Empathy.

Let’s talk about the third of my four themes: Planning for your retirement ….

As I explained earlier, my retirement plan is four years overdue.

When do you actually expect to retire?  Do you really expect to retire at 60? 70?  75?  Lets take 75 as planning assumption.  You’re probably going to have to work to 75 in some way to keep earning.


Now, that means you’re going to be working for 50 years.


But they are potentially 50 fabulous, fascinating years.

I was talking to someone the other day who was a district council chief executive in his 30s, a unitary CE in his early 40s and he’s about two years into that now.  And he said to me “Jonathan, what do I do now?”.  He can see another few decades stretching ahead, and is really not sure that he’s going to be interested in being a CE for the third or fourth time.  He’s also in a bit of salary corner – to move radically he’s going to have to take a pay cut, which is tricky for his family.

Don’t think about career in terms of the next job then the next one.  Take a step back and look at that fascinating 50 years you’re going to have.

… How much of that time will spend in local government?  All of it?

… How much time will you spend in the corporate centre versus frontline departments?

… Will you spend some time at PCT, Central Government or the private sector –it’ll help with the partnership theme I mentioned earlier on.  The complexity of partnership working means that internal candidates will have a real advantage – they know the people.  But the “internal candidate” for Local Authority CE in the new world may be the CE of the local PCT.

… How much time will you spend in intense stretching development, and how much time will you spend consolidating, perhaps coasting a bit and achieving some of your other life goals?  What phasing on that will work for you, and your family.

… When will you gain non-exec experience, as a school governor, or trustee of a charity.  Being a board member like that is another great way of understanding the experience of a member … feeling driven by “officers” and trying to keep on top of a big agenda in your spare time.

Use a wide angle lens, pace yourself.  Enjoy yourself.

Now, if you’re taking a creative approach to your career you’ll need to move around a bit; which means that you’ll be rubbing up against people like me in a professional capacity.  Let me give you some tips to help you succeed.  You only need to know three things, really.

Firstly, when you’re in an interview, answer the question.  Don’t try to be clever.  It’s not the today programme.  I asked one candidate how did you feel the interview went and he said “great, I got my three key points across” – and he was right, he’d got his three key points across in the answer to every single question, to the exclusion of the information we actually needed, despite much effort on our part.  Don’t try to be too clever.  We had one candidate who started juggling to show how she could balance priorities, and then got some children’s bricks out to build a little wall and take it down to show how she could break down barriers.  Just answer the question.  It’s very simple.

The next golden rule is to prepare.  Really prepare.  Think yourself into the role.  I had one candidate who had done no research before the interview.  So I asked him – what research did you do?  And he said “oh, I only do research once I’ve been invited back to the second interview”,   I couldn’t resist it, I said “do you get invited back to many second interviews”, “no”, he said proudly, clearly thinking he was proving his point about not wasting his time!  Preparation.  I was doing another role, recruiting the CE for a new public sector start-up.  The organisation was quite complex because it had an important regional dimension but also some important functional areas, so we asked the candidates what their thoughts were about an appropriate structure for the organisation.  A surprising number hadn’t begun to think about it.  One guy said “I know, that’s a really interesting one isn’t it; I’ve been kicking this around and my current best option is this one” and he pulled some of his notes of his briefcase and talked us through it.  He’s the one who got the job.

The last rule is to think about what makes you a risky appointment and face up to it, don’t deny it, but think about how you will manage the risk.  For some of you, you may seem risky because you’ll have less experience than other people going for the job.  Show people how you’ve taken on challenges before –show that you had a plan for doing it, your approach to managing people older than you, for example.  Show that your success wasn’t a fluke.  Show that you can adapt your plan to this role.

There’s a lot of complexity to grapple with, so let’s finish by talking about something simple: jaffa cakes.

A friend of mine teaches operations management at a business school, and he gets to visit lots of interesting places.  A couple of years ago he visited the factory in North London where McVities make Jaffa cakes.  They were showing off their incredibly sophisticated computer-driven manufacturing, but my friend saw a corner of the factory where a group of women in white coats were standing around a conveyor belt, prodding at things with little white sticks, so he went over and asked them what they were doing.  The machine’s broken they said, and while we wait for a new one to come from Germany,  we have to prod the orange jam into the base from time to time.  “Oh”, said my friend and started to turn away, but the woman stopped him and said “no, this important, you need to understand.  If the orange jam isn’t securely in centre of the biscuit base, when the chocolate layer is added it doesn’t form a perfect seal.  And that means that some air can get in before all the biscuits are sealed into the polythene bag in the box.  And that means that they will go off a bit sooner.  And that means that we have to put a shorter sell by date on the box.  And when shops are deciding which products they stock they really like things that have long sell by dates. So if we have to shorten our sell by dates shops won’t stock as many, and so we won’t sell as many.” And my friend was gobsmacked.

Someone, a manager, probably quite a junior manager, had taken the 60 seconds necessary to explain to these people why what they were doing was important, why it mattered, and it was clearly sustaining them through days of quite boring activity.

In some ways the challenges we and our staff face are more obvious in terms of why they matter, but the changes we need to go through and lead them through is very difficult, and helping to make a similar sort of sense for people will be critical.  But the leverage from getting that right, and the achievement will be immense.

Another thing I remember from that Charles Handy book is a nice little quote.  The role, he said, of a leader was

“To shape and share a vision, that gives point to the work of others”.

Remember the Jaffa cakes

And good luck.

Jonathan Flowers

Partner, National Lead on Local Government

Details of individuals have been changed to prevent identification without losing the thrust of the argument.

(c) Jonathan Flowers, Veredus, 2009

One Comment Add yours

  1. Richard Stay says:

    A very thoughtful & thought provoking piece – particularly for a bull in the china shop type like me!


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