A job on the council needn't be boring

Local government managers are shedding their dowdy, bureaucratic image and getting a much-needed makeover, writes Rachelle Thackray
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THINK of local government employment opportunities, and what spings to mind? Stimulating and absorbing challenges, cutting- edge training and the potential for a fast-track career? Or office-bound tedium among grey-suited and petty-minded bureaucrats?

Most of the general public might opt for the latter view, which is why the Local Government Management Board (LGMB), together with councils countrywide, is working to bring the image of local government as a prest- igious employer bang up-to-date.

Not that it ever deserved a negative reputation, according to Charles Nolda, director of employment affairs for 450 local authorities, which together are all- ocated an annual budget of pounds 34bn and employ 2,500,000 people.

"Local government has a significantly bigger proportion of highly-qualified people. In terms of NVQs, levels four and five, the figure in the economy in general is 24 per cent; in local government, excluding police, fire and teachers, it is 40 per cent. We have social workers, librarians, lawyers, accountants, engineers and valuers; professional staff as well as departmental leaders.

"We think we attract a reasonable share of the brightest category of the graduate population, but there is always going to be a perception that work in the public services is not as well paid."

People like the ethos of doing good for society, he says, but admits there will never be cash to spare in an operation ruled by politicians whose purse strings are tightly gripped by the taxpayer. In April last year, the average pay for chief executive officers ranged from pounds 50,000 to pounds 100,000, with the highest figures going to heads of London boroughs and county councils.

"Chief executives of county councils are running organisations with turnovers of hundreds of millions of pounds. In the private sector, we'd be talking salary figures three or four times that, but they don't have politicians making the decisions," says Mr Nolda.

With the move from compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) to Labour's Best Value initiative, management strategies will also undergo a shift. John Sutcliffe, an LGMB senior researcher, says: "I imagine a fair number of authorities will start to think about flattening management structures in order to have services that appear more immediate and responsive."

According to research, authorities were keen to get away from traditional department structures, and to move towards one-stop-shops. "The question is whether that will work through secondment from departments, or whether it would mean abolishing departments and having a slimmed-down team reporting to senior directors," says Mr Sutcliffe.

There may also be frustration for management, he warns. "Chief executives see themselves as champions of change in this context but they are at the beginning of a process. Obviously there will be inertia; that's what organisations are like."

The LGMB is rising to the challenge. Three years ago, it set up the Top Managers' Programme for chief executives and senior managers, and more recently, instituted a women's leadership programme.

Commentators from both the private and public sector concur that local government likes to breed its own senior managers. But Rose Wheeler, director of the Society for Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, notes that increasing numbers of senior executives are forging careers in management alone instead of rising through the professional ranks within councils.

"They don't want to be social workers; they want to manage in a public sector environment. It is still difficult to get into local government on that basis because there is no obvious career route, although I know some larger councils run a graduate entry scheme."