Opportunities for the brave lie ahead

By Ann McGauran | 28 November 2018

What will the local council of the future look like and how should the workforce be reshaped to suit a very different reality? Senior operations and HR specialists gathered at Penna for a wide-ranging discussion.

This included the question of whether the rise of artificial intelligence and predictive analytics mean large sections of the sector’s workforce are going to be laid to waste by these emerging technologies.

It also asked if councils will themselves be swept up and replaced by disruptive new Amazon-like business models – the platform paradigm – which create value by bringing together demand and supply.

As one delegate who has worked in the public and private sectors said: ‘For me this is a potential model for public services in the future. To a degree it’s already beginning to happen. They (councils) believe they control more than they actually do.’

‘It’s very interesting to see Amazon entering the local government market and it’s very interesting to see what it might do with that. Unless we are well on with our thinking on how we might make the platform paradigm work for us I strongly suspect someone will come along and undermine us at some point.’

Particularly in this context of the certainty of radical change, it is concerning that – as another participant put it – local government ‘hasn’t even started thinking about the kind of skills the future workforce might need to have, and how the world might need to be in the future’.

In terms of the priorities of the centre, this Government’s approach to local government has ‘largely been about cutting off its money supply quite severely’ said another. ‘There has been no overt attempt to think of redesign… and a lot of noise from the centre about localism – but actually very little to back it up and all these things impact on workforce and what our people do.’

He said the rise of AI and data and predictive analytics – ‘where because if it is a repetitive task you could probably automate it’ – does raise issues for large sections of the workforce.

The roles least likely to be automated include nurses, police officers, social workers, schoolteachers, surgeons, HR managers and CEOs.

His ‘great fear’ is that we have new technology which is available to local government but ‘don’t necessarily have a generation of people who are prepared to use it’.

In his view people who are coming into local government ‘regard it as being quite an old-fashioned place to work’.

For example, he doubted there will be very many young people coming into local government to do R&D ‘because we aren’t known for it’.

The fundamental question of what councils are going to be doing in future was also grappled with. One delegate said he would ‘slightly challenge whether providing libraries and care are going to be our role in the future’.

He added: ‘Are those types of roles, while they are value based, going to be provided or commissioned in the future by local authorities?’

Many at the table agreed councils needed to get much better at making local government a destination point for people – and to get better at developing a diverse workforce.

The success of a number of well-known private sector companies at fostering diversity in their organisations was noted – by employing ex-offenders, people with mental health histories, care leavers, and older returners to work, and using apprenticeships to skill them up.

The public sector should be ‘owning that agenda’ stressed another. ‘We should be the drivers and leaders around social mobility and diverse age entry…and also the leaders in terms of the people we are bringing in being the people we are trying to help. But the sector is really poor at it.’

It’s crucial councils get much more adept at making use of talent, according to one expert.

One clear message was that thought should be given to marketing job roles based on how they would improve people’s lives.

A lot of young people are seeking purpose in life, said a young delegate – through for example being able to look at predictive analytics to find out exactly what service needs to be applied and how the (job) role is going to be effective in making a difference.

One important potential inhibitor of the process of change and the kind of redesign required is that people around the top table in councils ‘are older, less diverse and less technological’, said another. ‘You’ve got to have people who want to champion thinking about this future and bringing it in now as a disrupter.’

The conclusion is that yes this new world means we will be working in radically different ways – but many more opportunities than threats lie ahead for the brave.

Attendees of the Penna round table

Julia Veall, change manager, Oxfordshire CC

Althea Loderick, strategic director of resources, Brent LBC

Mark Grimley, director of corporate services, Hammersmith & Fulham LBC

Sally Hopper, assistant director of HR, Hertfordshire CC

Kate Wallett, managing director, Alchemize Consulting Ltd

Phil Badley, Phil Badley Consulting Ltd

Denise Amoss, managing director, Complete Leadership

Carmel Millar, director, Pentus Ltd

Julie Foy, head of HR, Southwark LBC

Julie Towers, managing director, Penna

Matthew Jones, HR consultant executive intern, Penna

Fred Gwatkin, HR manager, Penna

Katherine Wilson, resourcing lead public sector, Penna

Jason Wheatley, lead consultant HR public sector executive intern and search, Penna

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