Accessability Links

The Usual Suspects


Feedback from much of our recent work on collaborative leadership demonstrates a growing consensus on the need for future public service managers to operate across traditional boundaries and act as “systems connectors”. Whilst I am sure we all see the obvious potential for the transfer of talent between sub-sectors and job functions within public service, most obviously between health and social care or between local and central government, less has been said about the movement from the private to the public sector or indeed from organisations that operate at the commercial interface between the two.

First a word of caution. “Private sector” is a broad church; as broad as “public sector”; but there are some obvious parts of the candidate market and professional functions where there are obvious synergies and potential for movement between sectors. One might argue that a good finance director is a good finance director; a good lawyer is a good lawyer and that public finance and the Local Government Act can be learnt. Even at Chief Executive level there are examples of individuals joining the local government family from the commercial world or even the military. Yet cross-sectoral movement is still relatively rare and all too often local government short lists are made up of the usual suspects.

As recruiters we have an obligation to not only conduct searches for our clients that ensure no stone is left un-turned but also to deliver diverse and balanced shortlists that many might argue should contain candidates from the private sector. In recent searches we have conducted in the corporate centre, in commericalisation of services, in customer contact, in infrastructure and also procurement there has been interest from candidates from outside of local government, but not without all or some of the following objections or perceived barriers to entry.

Role. Our sector does not always help itself in the definition of senior management roles and their key accountabilities. A typical private sector role profile might have only two or three essential criteria rather than thirty. This can create a perception that local government roles are unnecessarily complex, over-thought or indeed in some cases, muddled. Greater clarity is needed to make roles appear ‘do-able’ and recognisable to private sector candidates. And as a sector do we really know what we mean by “commercial” skills; are they measurable and assessable? Recruiters and psychologists who straggle both public and private sector worlds have an important role to play in this interpretation and its testing.

Reward. We recognise the argument that pay is not the main motivation for choosing a career in public service and that the post 2008 days when public sector workers typically found themselves better paid than many of their counterparts in the private sector have gone, but salary is still an important factor in cross-sectoral moves. As the economy has recovered, private sector wages are now rising ahead of inflation at a time when public sector wages are essentially static. Local government pensions are also not what they used to be. ‘Matching’ private sector salaries and incentivising candidates with performance related bonuses are still relatively rare practices in council attraction strategies.

Retention. Public service is no longer seen as a job for life; (not that any job is!) and indeed as the millennials enter the workplace traditional job security will be less relevant, but as the economy increases to gather pace ‘staying put’ in the short term is often more appealing than the risk of joining a sector that is experiencing more turbulence than the post-recession private sector ever did. Local government needs a new and confident voice about the career development opportunities it offers and the professional rewards of working in public service. We need a compelling argument to counter-balance perceptions that life in the private sector is somewhat easier and more stable.

Clearly this important work must be a joint endeavour. As recruiters we must challenge client briefs appropriately, help remove perceived barriers to applying for private sector candidate and reach out to relevant parts of the commercial world in our searches. In return we ask clients for open minds, open arms and dare I say it open pockets? Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Nick Cole is Head of Local Government Search and Selection at Veredus.
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