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December 2023: Reviewing 2023 and looking ahead to 2024

After a few years of dealing with a global pandemic and political upheaval, 2023 was supposed to be the year life got back to normal, but it turns out we were busier than ever in local government, says Naomi Cooke, LGA’s Head of Workforce, as she takes a look at what we’ve been up to this year and thinks ahead to 2024.

Naomi Cooke - head of workforce

During 2023 we saw plenty of change and new pressures on top of the ever-present challenges that come as standard from working in our complex and ever-adapting organisations. In a sense that is normal for local government.

Our councils and our workforces had to contend with floods, strike action across many sectors of industry, including education, a cost-of-living crisis, talent shortages, Eurovision in Liverpool, funding shortages, political changes at local and national level, disruptive AI, and worsening health affecting the people in our communities and workplaces, amongst other things. 

Throughout this year, as with other years, the LGA Workforce Team worked hard to provide pragmatic and solutions-focussed expertise and resources to help you lead your organisations through these trials. 

Attracting and retaining employees has been a central theme of our work with workforce capacity continuing to be a key issue with which local government is grappling.

Being more strategic about recruitment and retention is more important than ever so we developed our ‘6 Ps’ of best practice in recruitment and retention (plan, promote, process, partnerships, people & pledge, in case you were wondering) and engaged more councils than ever in our workforce planning networks

We also invested in supporting talent management and growing our own workforce of the future: we have an expanded apprenticeship programme and a new early careers toolkit; we worked with the government on shaping career pathways for social care staff; and we’ve been proud to work with LGA colleagues on a new strand to our National Graduate Development Programme called Pathways to Planning and promote new personal development programmes for culture and libraries staff. 

Recruitment is key but once we have staff in post we want them to thrive in our workplaces. Creating fair and inclusive and healthy workplaces is high on our radar. Our roundtables and virtual events and blogs this year explored what we can do to create workplaces and develop management skills that support our diverse workforce to engage fully, to feel well, and to perform well at work. 

As is to be expected, reaching agreements on pay awards across our sector has been particularly challenging this year for all concerned.  The challenge from a fast increasing National Living Wage on councils and schools is a major issue that is compounded in council finances by the increased cost of social care as those employers meet a very similar cost.  The uncertainty about what lies ahead next year weighs heavily on many.

If you follow us on X (Twitter) then you’ll be aware of a lot of this work and will have seen some of our most popular projects mentioned on our 12 Days of Workforce Christmas posts, looking at our work during the year. 

So, what do we think is heading our way in 2024? Well, a bit more of the same. Apart from Eurovision in Liverpool, sadly, although a Premiership title isn’t out of the question.

Workforce challenges will continue to increase for council chief executives and senior leaders across all councils. We will continue to have the perfect storm of economic pressures, societal events and political policy intensifying current workforce issues and bringing some new ones too. 

Of course, nothing is completely predictable, and everything is subject to change but here are some of the things we think we will need to respond to in the new year:

  • A more unsettled employee and employer relationship, particularly around pay, flexible working and talent retention and management;
  • Councils increasingly using AI to interact with and support people in local areas and to manage employee processes that will bring issues of workforce readiness e.g. how it will impact on current and future ways of working, skills, roles, digital dexterity, governance and problems of identifying trigger points of negative outcomes and unethical use;
  • A crisis in the wellbeing of our workforce, partly a legacy of COVID which lead to higher levels of stress and a deterioration of general health during the pandemic, but also because of waiting longer for NHS treatments;
  • Some very difficult decision on pay;
  • Persistent skills shortages – in the UK it is estimated that we have as many as 1 million unfilled vacancies, a disproportionate number of which are in local government and social care.

Add local elections and a general election into the mix and you can see that the ever-shifting landscape of public governance and local services means that 2024 probably won’t be boring for those of us working in local government. 

Facing this head on will require adaptability, organisational resilience and a workforce that is ready and willing to respond to change and deliver services in new and different ways. We must ensure, now more than ever, that we understand and put in place all the things that will help our employees to get on board with what needs done and have the ability to do it. 

Transformation will be key to our sustainability: redesigning teams, structures, processes, and leadership and management behaviours. 

Our work will focus on supporting local government to be on the front foot, driving innovative and adaptive workplaces.  Fairness and inclusion will be key to encouraging good performance together with being smarter at facilitating career growth that aligns business needs with employees’ interests and skills and doesn’t rely on rigid organisational structures or traditional career paths. 

Different ways of engaging with our front-line workers is important for staff retention. Recent studies have shown office or more centrally based employees have much higher levels of trust and are more likely to be happy with their pay, benefits and career development. That’s why we’re continuing to invest in our annual Health Check survey on how our social workers, occupational therapists and social care specialists are experiencing working for us and what works to create good workplaces for them. 

Wellbeing will continue to be a priority. The last few years have seen the boundaries between our work and personal lives dissolving and employees rely more than ever on their line managers to understand work priorities, manage the balance of pressures in their personal lives with increasing demands at work, and develop their skills to be effective at work. We must ensure that we are designing ‘doable’ jobs and empowering our managers to have the time and resources to lead and manage our workforce effectively to deliver everything we need for a challenging year ahead. 

So as we wrap up for 2023 – we’re not going anywhere, it’s just cold – I shall wish everyone in the local government workforce and beyond, best wishes of the season and a happy 2024.