Shaping the post-pandemic workforce

By Michael Burton | 30 October 2023

Jane Fowler is head of customer support services at Argyll and Bute Council, and SPDS president 2022-23. She originally trained as a land use planner and has covered planning, economic development, community engagement, corporate policy and funding, and finally HR.

T he past year has been one of ongoing change for the local government workforce and our profession, but one in which I see SPDS having strengthened its influencing role and risen to the challenges facing local government. Our seat at the table with a wide range of national bodies ensures we are at the heart of influencing the policy developments that will shape our future workforce.

We have a key role as the professional advisory body on employee issues to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities which involves engagement with national trades union representatives and involvement in negotiations on national pay and conditions. Supporting this advisory role, SPDS has more than 15 specialist portfolio groups whose leads co-ordinate SPDS advice, via the executive, on their areas of interest.

One of our roles is to share good practice and meet challenges together. Building on our Covid experience, we have established remote and hybrid working that provides work-life balance to our employees and maximises technological tools, while ensuring we continue to deliver excellent services. These flexible people processes have enabled councils to rationalise buildings and to make savings.

Our approach to employee wellbeing has been deepened and mainstreamed, again through collaboration and sharing. Our influencing and recognised expert advisory role in local government HR resulted in SPDS giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament Local Government and Housing Committee on both the National Care Service in 2022 and on workforce planning this year.

We collaborated with Solace on a recent workforce planning survey of all councils, to provide data that will allow us to influence national bodies on our future workforce needs. Working nationally on the development of a National Care Service presents us with one of the biggest changes to local government service delivery in many years.

SPDS has continued to take a leading role in promoting a position that ensures our social work and social care employees are heard and that their future employment is secure. In this our relationships with Social Work Scotland, the Office of the Chief Social Work Adviser and others in Scottish Government are essential and remain strong. We also continue to have a role in health and social care, liaising closely with colleagues in the NHS HR directors’ group, holding a very positive joint event along with CIPD colleagues in December, which we hope to repeat in future.

One of my interests as president has been to encourage and promote digital developments, collaboration, leadership and learning across local government. Audit Scotland has reported on the need for councils to radically transform to meet future needs as funding continues to contract whilst demand increases. As people professionals in local government, we have a critical role to support, enable and drive the digital skills agenda and to innovate in the way we work. Our portfolio lead for digital is making excellent progress in collaborating with and influencing the Local Government Digital Office, another key partner for SPDS, to take this important agenda forward.

This past year has also been influenced heavily by a succession of national industrial relations disputes with trades unions. Colleagues involved in the teachers’ pay negotiations did a tremendous job in reaching a settlement, but it is taking longer to reach agreement for the rest of our workforce.

Employers have a challenging role in these negotiations. We respect and value our employees, but we know that with constrained budgets, there are very hard choices to be made between pay uplifts and retaining jobs and services. I hope we can move forward in future negotiations, finding areas of common ground to ensure successful, strong and sustainable local government.

Elaine Barrie is head of people at Highland Council and incoming SPDS president 2023-24. A HR professional for more 30 years Elaine began her career in Fife then moved to Highlands in the early 90s to join Highland Regional Council before transferring to Highland Council after local government reorganisation in 1996.

The ongoing economic and environmental climate challenges, and the need to reduce the workforce – with skills shortages thrown into the mix – can be somewhat daunting for public sector leaders to address. It is essential we have strong HR provision to support services and for our leaders to face the future of uncertainty as we navigate the way forward, addressing the complex issues and avoiding going off course.

Among our priorities is the Verity House Agreement – a new partnership agreement between the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and the Scottish Government – which outlines the way we work together, approach shared priorities, and how the two spheres of government engage. There are three agreed shared priorities in the agreement: tackling poverty, the transition to net zero and sustainable public services. Funding of councils is already putting the agreement to the test and we are yet to fully understand how the Verity House Agreement will work in practice.

The full impact of the proposed National Care Service (NCS) is yet unknown and active discussions are ongoing to shape what it can and will look like, recognising greater shared governance will affect high quality social care support across Scotland. SPDS will work closely with COSLA to serve the interests of our workforce in shaping the delivery of the NCS and protecting our workforce.

Workforce planning will continue to be a key focus for councils over the next 12 months, particularly where there are skills shortages. The society will endeavour to support initiatives which will impact on addressing workforce issues at a local and national level such as grow our own, promoting careers in councils, inclusion and diversity. Collation of data and undertaking assessment of skills gap on a regular basis supported by technology and scenario planning will place councils in a good position in the medium-to- longer term.

Protracted national pay negotiations continues to beset industrial relations in the sector with further strikes looming in schools across Scotland. There is work ahead to restore and embed improved national relations with our trade unions and create a more flexible and adaptable workforce reshaping and deliver the reform needed.

This will rely on working with trade unions to achieve this as a key partner.

The health and wellbeing of our workforce will continue to be a high priority set against the changing demands and working environments, including hybrid arrangements. Supporting an aging workforce, staff with long-term effects of Covid, and neurodiversity are all key issues for councils to facilitate retention and attraction.

We are entering a period of radical change for local authorities in the way we operate and how we collaborate with partners if we are to survive and flourish in the current economic climate. This should not be viewed as a threat. Lessons from Covid have taught us that our public services are valued by our communities. Collaborating with our public sector partners is not only encouraged, but is essential to enable this innovation to take place and share best practice.

I welcome the development of closer working relationships over the next 12 months and beyond with all our partners and professional associations.

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