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Devolution and Local Government Leadership

20/04/16


In his Budget speech the Chancellor revealed a number of new agreements to create combined authorities headed up by elected mayors; “north, south, east and west – the devolution revolution is taking hold”, he said. Much of the interest in devolution thus far has centred on the institutions themselves; their constituent members, their boundaries and the negotiations (or not) about who is going to work with who (or not). Far less has been said about local government’s leadership capacity and capability to deliver these deals.

On the first point, we are seeing an increasing demand for leaders who have experience of navigating an increasingly complex and fragmented system where strategic influence is more nuanced. Such individuals are in short supply at all levels from Head of Profession to Chief Executive. The integration of health and social care, academisation and an ever increasing demand for commercial skills will only make hiring more difficult. Under investment in some professions, de-layering after CSR2010, pension reform and changing perceptions about job security in the sector have only further exacerbated the situation. Both the current talent pool and future pipeline is thin.

Capability, the second point is clearly linked. If as the Chancellor has stated “100% of local government resources will come from local government – raised locally, spent locally, invested locally”, the sector will need a new generation of collaborative leaders who can balance the sovereignty of their local authority with that of the greater devolved ‘good’ of the place to which they contribute. That in itself raises fundamental issues around leadership style, behaviours, communication skills and quite frankly knowing when to lead and when to let others take the reins. It has been said that collaborative leadership is easy when your decisions don’t matter.

It is also unclear how everyone will share in the fiscal fruits of devolution which from a hiring perspective could widen the gap between the attractiveness of employer brands in the north and those in the south (less so between the east and the west). Having recruited across the country, the last five years has been characterised by less money and less demand in the north and a war for talent in the south in areas such as social care and regeneration.

Successful collaborative leadership is very much about building personal links and relationships with other public sector agencies. A limited number of people have this experience and the quality of relationships that individuals can lay claim to varies greatly. To date, there really is a finite group of individuals in the sector who can say that they have personally delivered truly joined up local services.

So as head hunters we turn to other sectors for talent. As a leading public sector specialist Veredus clients benefit not just from access to our experts’ insights and networks in education, health, social care and the charitable sector but from the commercial insight we bring as a subsidiary of Capita. We do however need to recognise that cultural differences exist across the system and can create challenges for hiring authorities, particularly in joint appointments. Absolute clarity from the outset on the sectoral background of the candidate sought is essential.

So the war for talent is back and it is not just about finding people with experience of whole systems leadership but new approaches to systems leadership itself. Our view is that devolution is evolution, not revolution and Whitehall will look to local government leaders to define and refine the process for future deals. Step forward the leaders of the future.

Nick Cole is Director – Local Government Search and Selection at Veredus

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