Is the local government workforce crisis fixable?

By Gordon McFarlane | 20 December 2022

‘Extremely fragile’ sums up the state of our workforce. 

A recent Solace survey found a third of chief executives don’t have enough staff with the appropriate skills and qualifications to run services properly.  Looking ahead, 89% are concerned as to where the people with the right skills and experience to fill senior roles will come from.

Staff shortages are being felt to varying degrees across all services. While traditionally hard-to-fill roles such as social work and social care are causing acute difficulties, unfilled vacancy rates are also high among what would normally be considered easier-to-fill roles: legal, finance, engineering and building control to name but a few. There are few functions where staff workloads haven’t increased.

Already at crunch point, the capacity gap is set to widen. The cost-of-living crisis is increasing demand for our services, just as staff leave for better paid jobs to cope with rising inflation.  Longer term, an ageing population means more people with multiple and increasingly complex needs, even as the available labour market shrinks. All this means local government is having to deliver the same or better outcomes with less available labour.

Ironically at the very time we need to attract more staff, we find ourselves trapped in a vicious, negative recruitment cycle.  Burnt out staff resign, and morale can dip among remaining staff. Waiting times for services increase and service standards fall, attracting criticism.  Our most vulnerable service users suffer the most. A narrative that devalues our people, our credibility and with that our ability to attract and retain talent.

Against this backdrop we had a budget where service demand is very unlikely to be matched by funding in the medium term.

I’ve spoken in previous articles about the things local government can do to retain staff, but with insufficient funding there is a danger that these measures merely tinker with broken parts.  As the cross-party report, Public Services: Fit for the future, makes clear, there are fundamental structural problems the Government must address first that will support rather than undermine recruitment and retention.

I think the workforce crisis is fixable.  Some of the solutions sit within the control of local government but if these are to be effective then nationally, ministers need to confront the truth about the situation.  This means engaging the electorate in an honest conversation about the levels of service that can be delivered within allocated funding, or revisiting funding.

Finish off the fair funding review

Kent and Hampshire county councils are the latest to warn that they may have to issue a section 114 notice. This is an early warning to ministers that even drastic cuts to current services will not be enough to patch up the huge hole in their budgets created by soaring inflation and rising pressure in adult and children’s social care.

The fact remains, after years of successive governments kicking the fair funding review down the line, the formula used to calculate local government funding is painfully outdated and misaligned with current need.

The entire funding regime for local government needs to be looked at in line with wider changes in society before progress can be made to solve the workforce crisis in a sustainable way.

Address reasons for people leaving

While pay is undoubtedly contributing to staff shortages - particularly at a time when inflation is outstripping wage growth – fundamentally we have a supply issue.  No amount of market supplements or inducements on their own will entice the number of social workers or environmental health officers needed.

Similarly, young talent isn’t applying at a rate that matches our retirement rate, with the perception of taking on high stress, coupled with low pay. We need to address the working conditions and intense pressure that cause staff to leave and potential employees not to apply. The reputation of local government needs to be enhanced.

Again, this requires an honest conversation to match funding to need. We need sufficient capacity in order to remove intolerable work pressure caused by too few staff. Yet over the last 10 years every other part of the public sector has arguably suffered less than local government which has lost about 40% of its workforce.

Career rebrand

The reduction in local government workforce has contributed to the perception that a career in central government is more valuable than one in local government.  Yet national agendas such as levelling up and net zero can’t be delivered without a deep understanding of the needs of local communities. 

We know the USP of a career in local government is the opportunity to make a difference in the communities we serve. That’s why I’m backing the #lovelocalgov campaign calling on Michael Gove to send a clear message to the public that Government can’t deliver on national priorities without local government, and to show that he values the work of local government on a par with other sectors. 

Effective workforce planning and training

Reforms are working their way through Parliament that will have the potential to ease workforce shortages in hard to fill roles such as social work.  We need to incorporate this thinking into our strategic workforce planning.

At the same time let’s challenge ourselves to ask whether we are making the most of opportunities for suppliers to train and develop our staff.

One voice

Finally, let’s present a united front through our representative bodies such as  Solace, CIPFA the LGA and the PPMA.  We need to provide clear evidence, to inform and influence policy, including the hard data that Government needs to plan ahead.

The workforce crisis has been going on for long enough and it’s our people and our local communities that are suffering.  It’s time for the Government to come off the fence and decide to take action to support Local Government to overcome the current and impending workforce crisis or to tell the electorate what cuts they can expect to services.

Gordon McFarlane is PPMA president and assistant director at Leicestershire CC


comments powered by Disqus
Solace Recruitment LGA Funding Council staff Fair Funding Review