Join your nearest Empowering Women training (running in July and September only)

Recruitment and retention strategies in local public services

What will help local government find and keep good people?

An issue that crops up almost every time a group of local public sector professionals gather is workforce recruitment. In Transforming Recruitment and Retention Socitm colleagues swap their various recruitment and retention strategies. Read it to find out what works and discover something new. While everyone agrees that there is a problem there is no consensus on how to improve the situation.

How to just get better at finding and keeping staff with technology and digital skills, experience and potential? It’s tricky because there will be local and/or regional solutions and wider national ones. Ones that require sharing best practice and collaborating on bigger messages and stories.

Finding and keeping technology staff

Most organisations find it challenging to recruit and retain technology and digital specialists. One reason is the way technology jobs have grown as a proportion of all roles over many years. This requires increasing numbers of young people to join at the start of their careers, as well as older people moving from other jobs, just to satisfy demand.

The public sector has particular recruitment and retention problems.
All sectors require technologists. But some of the most profitable, such as financial services, are particularly dependent. And they have the ability to pay what is required to secure the people they need. The ability to carry out many such roles remotely means that specialists can increasingly take work anywhere in the world. So a local authority may increasingly have to compete with global technology companies for staff, including in areas with relatively few high-paying private sector employers.

Designing a public services workforce fit for the future
Published by the House of Lords Public Services Committee in July 2022.
The above report described the public service workforce as “facing a crisis” because of

  1. significant staff shortages and low morale,
  2. employers not doing enough to make careers attractive, and
  3. considerable difficulty” in recruiting.

Committee witnesses said that the public sector cannot compete with some parts of private sector on pay, so should look more creatively on other benefits including pensions, and flexible working.

Is flexible working the secret to staff retention in local public services?

Perhaps the area where individual public sector employers have greatest control is on flexible working. The First Division Association (FDA), the trade union for senior civil servants, told the House of Lords committee that:

...if the public sector is to compete with the private sector it must offer flexibility and a form of hybrid working”.

Other witnesses said that flexible working can lead to significant increases in applications from women and disabled people. Both of which helps to broaden the pool of potential applications. The most obvious type of flexible working is remote working, normally from home. Millions of us were forced to work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. But in many cases people found they prefer working this way, either some or all the time, despite bosses’ reservations.

As well as location, flexible working can include:

  • compressed hours,
  • four-day weeks,
  • overtime for those willing to work extra hours or
  • job-share arrangements.

‘Flexible retirement’, allowing older people to work part-time, may have particular benefits in keeping experienced staff in the workforce and attracting those from other sectors.

Private sector employers may be less willing, or in some cases less able, to provide as wide a range of flexibility as the public sector, providing a competitive edge.

Evidence and case studies

Log into the report for the all evidence and experiences. How are these different public sector organisations approaching recruitment and retention? What different strategies are they using?

Matt Lewis, Socitm
The Mid Career Dilemma
Matthew Lewis, Chief Operating Officer and Socitm Vice President
Shared Resource Services (SRS) Wales

Matt says that those who leave are typically mid-career staff aged 35 to 45, and are paid between £35,000 to £50,000. But they can increase this by £15,000 to £20,000 by moving jobs. He says that it is not too difficult to recruit people at lower grades and develop them, but that SRS Wales loses senior staff as fast as it can find them.

During President’s Conference in June 2022, Matt shared that he has seen cases of people moving to Bristol, leaving the UK or being offered a London weighting while being allowed to work from home in south Wales. But many move to other public sector employers such as at the ONS, which is headquartered nearby, or to NHS organisations.

Through exit interviews, SRS Wales has found that higher pay is not the only reason that people move. And although Matt says it is an important one, local authorities do not have the financial resources to match what’s on offer elsewhere.

London Borough of Hounslow logo
Tackling job descriptions and different recruitment campaigns
London Borough of Hounslow

Its staff rewrote the profiles for all roles. Moving away from traditional, black and white, wordy job descriptions towards vibrant, succinct and accessible role profiles which:

  • stress Hounslow’s values and commitment to the strategy;
  • promote the borough, culture and ways of working; and
  • were consistent across the service.

In addition, care was taken to ensure these new role profiles avoided gender bias. The new structure was formalised during the summer of 2020 and an internal recruitment campaign resulted in four existing members of staff securing promotions.

Read all about the external campaigns and results – applications, interviews and offers – in the full report.

Adam Elliott, Socitm Advisory, and Andy Campbell-Critchley, Socitm Advisory
Proactive recruitment and data
Andy Campbell-Critchley, HR Director
Adam Elliott, Head of Resourcing
Socitm Advisory

Adam says that that state-sector organisations are “behind the times” in attracting talent. They can often rely on placing job adverts and waiting for applications, or use agencies to find appropriate people. However, they would benefit from proactively looking for candidates themselves.

The market is extremely tight for good, talented individuals, especially within technology,” he says. Meaning such people have to be sought out.

Public sector organisations should collect and analyse data on staff retention. This should include quantitative data (including attrition rates by demographic group) and qualitative material.

Exit interviews only cover people who have decided to leave the organisation, whereas interviews with existing members of staff can provide insights into why people stay. While pay is very important, Andy says, it is not everything and benefits, training opportunities, the working environment, and relationships with line managers can all be significant.

Sam Hall, Digital Health and Care Wales
Using the example of the Civil Service
Sam Hall, Director of Primary, Community Care and Mental Health Digital Services
Digital Health and Care Wales

We want 10 years experience but we are offering graduate pay..

While it may be challenging to find more money immediately, local government also struggles to convince potential applicants that they will have paths to higher pay and bigger jobs if they do join. Central government use civil service grades and structures, meaning that staff know what they have to do to reach the next level.

There is also great potential to increase the awareness that local authorities run digital services that have significant impacts on their local communities, a story councils are not telling well at present: “I’m a digital person, I’m looking for a job, do I want to work somewhere where the only thing I can think they do is empty bins?” she says. Local authorities use technology and data to tackle poverty and safe-guard vulnerable children among other things: “Tell the right story,” Hall concludes.

Recommendations and suggestions for strategies to positively impact recruitment and retention

Download and view the recommendation as an infographic. Members, log in to read the whole report.

Suggestions for you and your organisation

  1. Make recruitment easier – turn your user-centred service design skills onto your recruitment processes
    Public sector processes are often time-consuming compared with the private sector. Giving the latter a competitive advantage when recruiting for hard-to-find roles.
  2. Offer remote and hybrid working
    • If a role can be carried out entirely remotely, try opening it to home-working from anywhere in the UK.
    • If hybrid working is appropriate, consider the model used by government departments, and allow people a choice of offices as their base. This could be extended through co-operation with other public sector organisations to establish shared work hubs (in existing offices).
  3. Be flexible on job requirements and titles
    Choosing titles and writing attractive descriptions is a low-cost way to market roles. In general, it makes sense to have commonly used technology and digital job titles such as user experience designers, data engineers, data architects, devops engineers, user researchers and delivery managers.
  4. Improve accessibility
    Add specific pathways for those returning to work to your strong employment practices. It’s a route that may be largely used by women, but is open to everyone who’s taken time away from work – and for older candidates
  5. Consider career progression
    It may be relatively hard for local public services to offer career development in technology and digital roles, but doing so provides a method both of retaining staff and developing future leaders.
  6. Market yourself as a technology employer
    Local public services have a strong story to tell. This could involve blogposts by staff, social media posts, podcasts, interviews and so on, as well as presentations at career events or places of education.
    As well as discussing the likes of working practices and strong pension plans, it makes sense to highlight specific ways in which technology and digital work serves people in the local community.

Suggestions for the whole sector

  • Central portals for job adverts
    Candidates looking for digital and technology jobs, particularly medium-level and senior ones, are unlikely to find them on an individual organisation’s website. Unless they already work there. A single location to search jobs would make it easier for people to find vacancies from a range of organisations.
    A possible model is Arts Council England’s Arts Jobs – a simple jobs board and email service that is free for organisations in the sector to use.
  • Marketing local public sector technology as a career
    The sector can also market itself through work which has wider benefits, such as by developing digital resources of products, services and projects that could be used by individual authorities. This should include how digital local government serves its communities, such as by using technology to let older people live in their own homes.

Log in and browse the whole report.

Photo from the Centre for Ageing Better’s Age Positive image library.