Local government has an image problem. But that doesn't mean that councils aren't interesting places to work - and they're certainly crying out for young talent, says Beryl Dixon

There are two problems in working for local government. The first is that the public often confuses it with the civil service (local government being the collective term for local councils.) The second is the frequently negative image portrayed by the press which often refers disparagingly to "Town Hall bureaucrats".

Yet those who work there say that local government can be an interesting and challenging environment. Elaine Wright, who works in Stevenage Borough Council's policy unit, enjoys the variety in her job. "Our role is to drive the council's policy planning cycle. This involves consulting the community to find out what people want, and whether they feel we are meeting their needs; and also monitoring our performance to ensure that we are meeting national targets and priorities.

"We bring all these factors together to set direction and review our corporate business strategy. I have a corporate view of the organisation and know what is going on at a high level. I am learning a lot and work with and meet many different people, including the chief executive, strategic directors, heads of service and elected council members."

Jill Rennie, in the London borough of Barnet, also values variety. As a senior officer in the strategic development unit she spends the major part of her time on an urban regeneration project. "I do a lot of research - monitor national and regional policy development, find examples of existing good regeneration practice and produce statistics related to the project," she says.

"However, the most interesting aspect of the work is when you start to examine your results against local conditions and what is really going on in Barnet. I spent most of yesterday, for example, compiling statistics from website data, but it's not all desk-work. I have been involved in consultations with the community, have spent time at an exhibition, answering questions on the proposals and I talk regularly to colleagues across the council and in other London boroughs.

"I also co-ordinate and chair strategy meetings and attend working groups with council officers and private-sector consultants. As part of my work I had total responsibility for producing a brochure explaining the council's approach to regeneration and growth."

There are 468 local councils in the UK, providing an enormous range of local services from social services, consumer protection, environmental health and housing to libraries, transport, refuse collection and street lighting. Between them local authorities spend more than £70bn a year, and employ more than two million people. The mix of services provided varies according to whether a council is a county, district, metropolitan or unitary authority. In addition to providing direct services councils also do strategic work - such as economic development and planning.

Many people give their reason for choosing local government work as a desire to help the community. Management trainee Daniel Gilby says: "What drew me to local government was a wish to work where I would be able to see evidence of my work being put into practice locally."

Rennie says: "If you work for a council you are at the heart of a local community. I wanted to make a difference for the people who live here. Regeneration touches on so many different aspects. This project involves a new town-centre, community facilities and housing, together with improvements to the infrastructure, including a new bus-station and improvements to the highway network."

Then, there are other, more personal reasons. Wright initially chose to work in local government because she was looking for work-life balance. As a mother returning to work, she looked for employment near her home. "I saw an advertisement for a policy support officer and initially worked part-time providing support to the team. I enjoyed the work and soon found that I was learning a lot and finding out about the work in more depth.

"When a vacancy for a policy officer came up I applied for the post and was successful. I think that many people in my position choose local government primarily for the working conditions - in particular the flexible hours and ability to balance work with family commitments. Like me, though, they soon find that there is much more to offer. My council is a good employer. Internal communication is excellent and there are good opportunities to progress, through learning opportunities and your own efforts."

Local government has changed. Since the Local Government Act of 1999, which set out to reform and modernise the way in which councils work, they have been obliged to meet an increasing number of central-government targets on performance, efficiency and innovation. They are required to benchmark their own performance against national performance-indicators and the performance of other councils.

A white paper on strong local leadership has also been published. Local government needs new managers, not only to achieve these targets but to replace the numbers retiring. It needs people who will question and innovate rather than maintain the status quo. Above all, it needs young managers. Only six per cent of local government employees are under 25. It is looking for the brightest and best, those who are also chased by blue-chip private-sector employers.

Four years ago, funding was provided by central government to establish a National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP), designed to produce future senior managers and chief executives of local authorities. The programme is national in the sense that it is run by the Employers' Organisation for local government, which provides a range of services to councils, but it is mainly funded by the councils themselves.

One hundred graduates with a minimum 2:1 in any subject are selected each year, are guaranteed a place on the programme and a starting salary of at least £20,970 outside London. They must then apply for a two-year placement with a "host" council, which pays their salaries, funds a part-time postgraduate diploma in local government management through Warwick University and gives them placements in four different departments over a two year period.

The Employers' Organisation monitors the programme, runs short national training courses and provides external mentors. Malcolm Craig, who manages the NGDP, says that early indications are that it will be successful. " Obviously we cannot evaluate it yet against the long-term aim, which is to produce future leaders, but 86 of the first intake of 100 are still with local councils and doing well. About one third are working in corporate affairs or policy departments, one third are in support departments such as human resources and finance and one third are in front-line departments like planning or housing."

Daniel Gilby, a history graduate, is in the National Graduate Development Programme, and on placement with Essex County Council: 'I was impressed by the people I met'

"I considered various jobs in the public and private sectors, including management consultancy and the civil service. I had temporary jobs at the Home Office and in the Prison Service, so had some public-sector experience. I reached my decision after attending the National Graduate Development Programme assessment centre. It was the best-run of the ones I went to and I was impressed by the people I met. After gaining my place I had interviews with two councils and accepted the placement Essex offered me.

"I have been here since the beginning of September, have completed the council's induction training - including some very good courses on teamwork and management - and have attended one national training event with the entire cohort of 52 graduates. I am now working on my first project. I am in the adult social care department and am producing a housing strategy for older people.

"My initial research has involved reading government policy documents and arranging meetings with key people who work here. Everyone, even senior managers, has been generous with their time and keen to help me. My next step will be to set up a steering group with partners from the county council, district councils, housing associations and the voluntary sector. At the end of the six-month placement I should have produced a policy document. I shall then move on to my next placement. I know that over the two years I will gain experience in front-line, strategic and core-service roles across the county council."

The lowdown

What is there to do?
A select few graduates join the National Graduate Development Programme, but many others join councils as trainees, or are recruited to specific posts. Around half of local-government staff are employed in administrative work, and school-leavers can enter as administrative assistants and obtain internal promotion. In-house training and support in obtaining recognised qualifications to aid promotion are generally good.

How much will I earn?
Salaries vary with levels of responsibility and in different areas. Senior managers can earn £60,000-plus; chief officers one rung below chief executives average between £82,000 and £97,000 in England and Wales. The average salary for chief executives is £111,000; in large councils it can be £155,000. Salary packages increasingly include an element of performance-related pay - usually around seven per cent of total salary.