• Karena Starkie-Gomez, Director |
4 min read

The work of local government has become increasingly challenging in recent years; there is a rising demand on services, the post-pandemic backlog, the cost of living crisis, and continuing cuts to local authority budgets. As we have seen in recent weeks, with the news of Birmingham City Council’s financial difficulties, an increasing number of councils have either already taken or are anticipating having to take drastic measures to balance their books.

More than ever, transformational and full-scale change is needed. A well-developed and thought-through learning and development offer can be a part of the solution. However, with many council budgets having little space for anything other than essential service delivery, local authorities will need to get creative in developing their staff.

More collaboration across systems is needed

One way in which many public sector bodies have been meeting the challenge of developing their workforce in a financially constrained environment is through a shift toward system leadership. With leaders working beyond their own organisation; and collaboratively with other government, third sector, community organisations and charities.

Some authorities are already delivering leadership development for staff across health and local government, with still more exploring this.

What can enhance collaboration on development?

While leading from the top is key in adopting a systems-wide approach to learning and development, we also need operational teams to be given the support to build relationships and share learning. Good leadership is an essential condition for success, but it needs embedding at every level in the organisation. This is doubly true in challenging financial times, when the focus of councils may narrow on delivering services they are statutorily required to and leaving very little room for improvement activity such as culture change. Paradoxically, wide-ranging improvements and transformation are exactly what is required to meet the need to ‘do more with less’.

What can be done? Often the immediate answer is to implement a shared culture, but this is a tall order. However, small things like sharing ideas and learning across a network and then leading to a shared offer to staff. Making sure that spaces on training programmes or development events are shared with wider partners if not immediately filled within the host organisation. Sharing materials, or ‘stealing with pride’ and train the trainer from one organisation to another are all low-cost ways to collaborate.

Increasing development and support across the system will improve collaboration and generate benefits

We know from our experience that developing a system-wide learning offer reduces learning costs and counter intuitively increases quality and learner experience.

Collaborating on development across a system means getting more value out of taxpayer money – meeting the financial challenge many public sector bodies are facing. It is more cost-effective to design and implement the same learning programme once across a number of connected teams than it is for each team to develop a programme of their own. Joint funding and budgets also offer better buying power. Many Integrated care systems already combine their apprentice levy to deliver better value – including Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire.

A systems approach to learning also builds trust and positive relationships required for effective collaboration and a better work environment. Building a better staff experience and potentially also improving retention.

How can leaders in local government support this?

Whilst system leadership is established as a concept in operations and frontline services, making it happen is hard. Doubly so in doing this across a function often seen to be one of the first to have budget cuts where finances are tight. However, development needs to be increased in times of change and challenge – and better to do that and also drive greater value for money by combining spend and collaborating across organisations in a system or place.

Leaders will require bravery and a willingness to advocate for a different way of doing things – keeping the customer/citizen at the heart of the issue rather than departmental or organisational targets, and understanding that adopting a system-wide view will enable a better outcome and better value for money. Being a skilled and persuasive advocate for change is essential.

They will also require empathy and an affinity for building inclusive relationships centred around a common goal. It is key that system leaders have an appreciation and an ability to make others feel included in decision-making and see an issue from their point of view.

System leaders lastly need to be comfortable with failure – this is often a challenge, especially in risk-averse structures of health and social care. They need to be able to experiment if we are to meet complex issues with system-wide solutions and make savings across public sector bodies. All of these qualities can be grown, and only with a combined development offer across organisations.