Local Government Magazine

Smile on the Dial: New skills strategy aims to make councils employers of choice.

Smile on the Dial - Local Government March 2017

What would it take to create careers so satisfying that it’s hard to leave local government? Or to get the brightest and best people queuing around the block to join? Bit by bit, a bold new strategy is taking shape to do just that, writes Ruth Le Pla. Plus, we’ve canvassed nine more ideas on what else could be done.

When back in 2015 LGNZ released its 29 / 100 scorecard for local government’s reputation, it was only putting a number on what most people in the sector have lived and breathed for years.
For many people outside the sector, working for council is not considered sexy. It’s not seen as meaningful. Or even career-enhancing. Some private sector employers still harbour the belief that if they take on a long-time council employee, they’ll inherit the challenge of undoing years of rigid rules-based behaviour.

A comprehensive project in the Far North has four councils joining forces to run a coordinated training programme for all their tier three and four managers.
Dave Tams, GM corporate excellence at Northland Regional Council (NRC), is coordinating the programme after first initiating the idea at his own council.
With a background in corporate organisational development and change in the UK, he could see the potential for existing managers to boost their skills and leadership maturity.
“In one regard, people are like any other asset that you’ve got,” he says. “You either invest in the asset or you’re destroying value.”
He says efforts to date at his council had not been joined up. “We had no idea of a single leadership brand. We had no idea of what good looks like. We’d send people on a course here and there. It was all hit and miss. It wasn’t against a strategy.”
Dave homed in on SOLGM’s LGAcceleratedLeadership programme. Spotting a wider opportunity, NRC CE Malcolm Nicolson asked the CEs of the Far North, Whangarei and Kaipara district councils if they’d be interested in joining forces.
The end result is that every single tier three or four manager from all four councils will get the chance to do the programme. Each cohort of 20 to 25 people is a deliberate mix of managers from all four councils – helping to forge relationships throughout the region.
The first cohort completed its five-month series of modules in November last year. Another is underway and concurrent programmes will follow.
Dave says staff working for managers in the first cohort say they’ve noticed a difference. “They say their manager is more open to discussion and more facilitative, as opposed to directive.
“From the managers’ perspective, a couple of them are saying they can now see different ways of doing things – more of a coaching type of style – and they’ve now got the tools and a bit of confidence to do that.
“We’re trying to tap into all the talent we’ve got.”
Dave Tams, GM corporate excellence at Northland Regional Council (NRC)
Dave Tams, GM corporate excellence at Northland Regional Council (NRC).

Little wonder, then, that attracting and holding on to the sharpest, brightest staff can be problematic for some councils. For other local authorities, the problem is the mirror image of all this. As the largest, and often most stable, workplace in some parts of the country, some councils battle with how to stop staff stagnating for years in comfortable silos. Pockets of jobs-for-life attitudes remain.
Yet the sector needs great people like never before. Decades ago, councils may have been able to focus on rates, roads and rubbish. Now they’re expected to juggle a much more unwieldy workload.
At the governance level, LGNZ’s to-do list includes everything from looking at new funding models, to developing a shared national response to regional development and figuring out what climate change may mean for councils. All of this, and much more besides, eventually trickles down into new policies, processes and work streams for staff to untangle, implement and maintain.
If it’s any consolation, we share this problem of poor perception with councils in many other parts of the world.
Bob O’Neill is the US-based immediate past executive director of the International City / County Management Association (ICMA). On a recent visit to New Zealand he told Local Government Magazine that many people’s first idea of local government is that it’s an “inefficient, ineffective, slow, bureaucratic environment”.
Their second perception, he says, is that “it’s politically charged so it’s hard to get things done”.
Across the Tasman, LG Professionals Australia CE Lauren Oakey adds that many non-council people think a local government culture “is not the right fit, particularly for the next generation”.
Over in the UK, Solace’s Jo Miller managed to slip into her inaugural speech as president a caution that the local government sector “mustn’t lose, as we go through our delayering and reconstructing, the ability for talent to rise through the ranks of our own workforce”.
Bob concedes any negative perceptions about local authorities carry a grain of truth. But, he argues, they are “substantially overblown”.
“If you interview people who are in the public service, many of them are terribly excited about the work they do and the impact they have for individuals and communities.”
SOLGM CE Karen Thomas remembers talking with some Auckland Council staff about their jobs. It was not long after she had taken up her role at SOLGM and the council staff had solid professional qualifications that would have stood them in good stead in private sector jobs.
“They’d taken what they thought at the time were temporary assignments into one of those [pre-merger] councils in Auckland and there they were 10 years later,” she says.
“They’d had a really negative view of what working for a council would be like until they actually started. Then they realised it was a fabulous work environment that looks really different on the inside to what it does from the outside.”
For several years now, SOLGM has been slowly piecing together a series of initiatives that are building towards something akin to a sector-wide skills strategy.
Karen says it’s been an organic process fuelled by a desire to keep forward momentum rather than wait to come out with a “nice, neat comprehensive programme”.
“But in saying that, we have got an overarching structure in mind and we’re filling it up bit by bit.”
SOLGM had already had a recruitment and retention strategy for a number of years, following on from an earlier piece of research it had commissioned from Deloitte.
According to Karen, however, much of that work focused on attracting good talent rather than holding on to it.
Work has gathered considerable speed more recently. The LGLeadership Pathways initiative forms a three-tier series of programmes aimed at officers at different stages of their careers. (And requires a keen eye for squashing capital letters together in strange places.)
According to Natalie Stevens, SOLGM’s manager learning and development:
LGExecutiveLeaders programme (for senior leaders)

  • Was launched as a pilot with the Northland Regional Council senior leadership team and then sector-wide in Wellington Nov 2016;
  • Is underpinned by neuroscience and its contribution to leadership; and
  • Participants focus on making a contribution to local government using a ‘systems’ approach involving work on a special project that bridges the central and local government sectors.

LGAcceleratedLeadership programme (for mid-tier managers)

  • Was launched July 2015;
  • Is delivered on a regional basis to encourage ‘joined-up thinking, collaboration and increased opportunities for sharing of best practice’; and
  • Has had around 200 participants to date. More regional rollouts are planned for 2017 including significant support for the programme in Northland.

A programme for emerging leaders

  • This will be launched with a pilot in Palmerston North this month.

A good measure of the organic growth and acceptance of the mid-tier accelerated leadership programme lies in the list of councils that have run their tier three or four managers through it.
As Karen and Natalie tell it, the programme has so far been taken up by councils in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty region; a group from Otago / Southland; then Manawatu / Whanganui / Taranaki; an inhouse group all from South Waikato District Council; and the four Northland councils.
LG Professionals Australia CE Lauren Oakey says the closest thing at the moment to a national skills strategy is enshrined in the document Future-proofing Local Government: National Workforce Strategy 2013 – 2020.
Published in April 2013, its strategies and actions include: improving workforce planning and development; promoting local government as a place-based employer of choice (when people live and work in the same area); retaining and attracting a diverse workforce; creating a contemporary workplace; investing in skills; and improving productivity and leveraging technology.
In any case, over there, local government is a responsibility of state government and this includes implementation of any workforce strategies – whether formally through government or through relevant state local government industry bodies.
Whether a sector-wide skills strategy exists or not, individual councils must ultimately manage their own need for talent.
In New Zealand, Natalie Stevens says there are pockets of excellence in the sector and “quite a variation from outstanding to adequate”.
She says she’s seen some outstanding capability frameworks from Wellington City Council, Rotorua Lakes District, Auckland Council and South Taranaki District Council.
(The latter has been a finalist in the IBM / Kenexa Best Workplaces Survey for seven years in a row and for many years has been renowned for having the highest staff engagement scores in local government.)
Bob O’Neill points out it’s not an “either / or” piece of logic. Any overall countrywide strategy needs to work within distinct labour markets.

This is the cover story in the March 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.  The rest of the article is subscriber-only content. Please CLICK HERE  to subscribe to the magazine.

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