Attracting, retaining and developing digital talent into Local Public Services

Written by Robin Knowles, CEO of Digital Leaders

Picture this – a supply and demand situation, where demand far outstrips the supply of digital talent and you also can’t compete by using the main lever of “salary” with the private sector, or even with national bodies like the NHS. What hope is there for local public services to attract the digital talent and skills they need to deliver digital transformation?

Is the realist left contemplating a future where talented staff if found or nurtured, will be headhunted by local competitors unburdened by the pay scales and annual budget cuts faced by local government? This view of where local public services sits in the pecking order for digital talent in the UK has to be the realistic starting point for any attempt to tackle these challenges.

But, is all hope lost or are there some reasons to believe that things might get better if local government can play to its strengths and raise awareness of what it has to offer? What follows are my reflections from chairing a conference on this topic for Civica.

When it comes to attracting talent, it is good to know that UK millennials, while very pessimistic about the prospects of owning their own home or enjoying a decent retirement (Ipsos Mori poll data 2017)… Do want to work in environments with purpose, impactful outcomes and where salary comes second, perhaps for a brief period, before families and life gets expensive.

In a survey of technology graduates in London in 2017, salary came 5th in the order of priorities after job purpose, job title, who they would be working with and promotion prospects. That’s not to say that local government ticks the first 4 boxes, but all is clearly not lost when it comes to salary alone attracting digital talent. 

Local Government also needs to present it’s benefits to talent beyond salary. The “total package” with pension contributions, holiday allowances, flexible working, parental care and structured training programmes all typically exceed those offered by the private sector, making comparison on salary alone meaningless. Perhaps total benefits packages should be posted, monetising these additional benefits to allow talent to compare properly with private sector offers.

One way in which Local Government can play to these strengths is by attracting apprentices. Working with your local schools, colleges and universities, it seems that only public service providers and large corporates can offer the attractive combination of flexible working, a supportive mentoring environment and the time and space to study and work. This is not a space for start-ups or small businesses and so for a brief time perhaps talent can be attracted into the local public service providers.

But having attracted and trained some digital talent, how can you keep it? Retaining it remains an even harder challenge. For example, Leeds typically has over over 600 unfilled digital job vacancies every month. Into this existing imbalance of supply and demand, the attractive local economy has seen the city attract Sky, NHS Direct and shortly a new HMRC facility. What chance can there be for say the City Council to retain any talent or is a drain of talented digital staff to these newer, larger, wealthier organisations inevitable?

One response to this by local public service providers has been to create regional platforms for digital services that create larger organisations with the efficiencies, budgets and shared services solutions that can attract talent and pay salaries that are both competitive and arms length to traditional local government structures. Potentially the creation of these regional technology platforms of such scale and regional importance may create the purpose, progression and benefits to be gained by remaining that retains talent.

Beyond attracting new staff and then retaining them, are there opportunities hiding in your existing organisation? Anecdotally it is now a regular thing to hear stories of council staff finding they have talents better suited to the new “networked world” of digital rather than the previous industrial one. Certainly there is a case for believing that you could have within your organisation existing sources of talent. This could be the much maligned “frozen” middle between your leaders, with a “digital vision” and the “digital natives” joining at the bottom.

There is talent to be unearthed here, but leaders will need to display the empathy and show the respect deserved by these managers who the organisation has, up until recently, trained and dragooned into an industrial way of thinking and behaving. Perhaps its time to thaw out the frozen middle with kindness to find those with a digital mindset.

Finally, Local Public Services have had a bad wrap since the Thatcher era. They have born the brunt of Government cuts since austerity began in 2010 and there is a hidden success story of resilience and innovation, faced with this financial onslaught, to have retained front line services. Local Public Services are overdue a relaunch.

So, is it time for a national PR campaign across the UK, reminding us all of the amazing work done by local public servants daily? It may lead to talented people reconsidering it as a place to have an impactful digital career. We’ve recently promoted the teaching profession and are currently re-launching the Army as a career, perhaps now is the time to celebrate the importance, purpose and benefits of working in our local public services.

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