What do councillors want from their future council officers?

Whilst writing an article for LGA’s First magazine, which pops through the letterbox of every elected member, we’ve been thinking about the implications of our 21st century public servant research for councillors.

Councillors will know better than any of us that the behaviours and expectations of citizens are changing, as they become more assertive and more interested in working with professionals. This means that staff working with residents need to be enablers not managers, enabling people to do it for themselves; they won’t be in charge. Officers will need to engage more closely with citizens and make better use of a wider range of data to understand their local populations – including tapping into the in-depth knowledge that councillors have about their wards.

One of the clearest messages is that ethics and values are changing as the boundaries of public service shift. With large commercial organisations delivering public services, the notion of a public sector ethos is being eclipsed by an increased focus on commercialism. Many that we interviewed believed that a strong public service ethos has to underpin public services, irrespective of who is delivering them. However, not everyone sees increased commercialisation as a negative. “What you’ve got to get away from in the 21st century is that you’re public or private sector; you’re running a business – you’ve got to have the flexibility,” said one respondent.

All those we interviewed agreed that we need commercial skills at all levels throughout the workforce – and some suggested that bringing private sector managers into councils could be a way of ensuring councils can hold their own in contract negotiations.

Many interviewees recognised that long-term austerity is both inhibiting and accelerating change. Councils are struggling to balance short-term cost-cutting and redundancies with setting a strategic vision for change. We heard a lot about the prevailing narrative of doom, with a focus on survival and no vision for the future. Councillors have a key role to play in creating a different narrative so that the workforce can have a vision for the future and seize the opportunities for change.

This may be a tough message for council leaders and chief executives to hear, but the traditional concept of the ‘hero’ leader is not the answer. Rather than emphasising the charisma and control of an individual, new approaches focus on leadership as dispersed – with staff throughout the organisation empowered to lead across organisational boundaries.

And finally, the role of place in public service needs to be recognised. Public service workers often have a strong loyalty to the neighbourhoods, towns and cities in which they work, as well as an organisational loyalty. If people are making big decisions about how people live, work and spend their leisure time in an area, shouldn’t they also live there? The recognition of the importance of place reflects the central role that the councillor plays and suggests the need for an even closer working relationship between councillors and council officers in the future.

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