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The local government brain drain

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

17th June 2014

This blog’s co-author Glen has left local government and taken up a cool job working with a digital company who work alongside local authorities.

Its great opportunity for Glen and the company employing him have got themselves the perfect person to work with their new local government clients. Despite this definitely being a good thing for all involved (Glen, his new employer, local government as a whole) I can’t help but think that this is, in some ways, emblematic of a wider trend in local government where many of the best young people end up leaving.

As @paulhayes01 noted on the twitter:

‘I’m starting to see a pattern here, aren’t I? ;-(‘

He might be right. I know that I am in danger of relying on purely anecdotal evidence but it seems like a lot of the good people working in councils tend to leave. Similarly, many of the best, and most interesting, people I know, or follow, in and around local government don’t actually work for councils.

I should say that I don’t think this is a problem per se. The public sector should not be afraid of the private sector and the more good ideas we have in local government the better; wherever they come from. However, I do worry that many of the people with the best ideas are not remaining in councils and that this might be emblematic of something mildly troubling.

Is there something about local authorities that mean that the best and the brightest don’t want to work for them long term? And if there is can we do anything about it? I have four theories about this:

1)     1) Money

I actually don’t think this is the driving force some of my more cynical colleagues might. Yes, interims are well paid and consultancies the same. Indeed, often these day rates can cause serious gnashing of teeth. However, most of the people I know who have left and are still working alongside the sector have a real public service ethos and are not purely, as far as I can tell, money motivated.

However, there are areas where freelancing or the private sector might more accurately reflect their actual market worth in a way that councils can’t. I don’t think this is easily fixable in a market where local authorities are competing with other industries but local government pay scales do have a tendency to prioritise professional qualifications, line management and structure (senior accountants for example) over innovation and new ideas, many of which add far more value than we are willing to pay for.

2)      2) Freedom

Local government is still, despite some changes, a buttoned down risk averse place.

Staff are constantly restrained from coming up with new, and thus risky, ideas.

Equally, the work is so all consuming that the time to come up with those ideas is reduced to an absolute minimum and councils are so individual that they rarely work together on anything too exciting. Thus, if you want to have interesting ideas or want to work with more than one council or want to have the time to think and experiment you have to leave the council.

In many ways this is rather silly; if councils find a member of staff who is willing and able to push the boundaries a little shouldn’t they be put in a place to do just that? After all, this is the sort of rare talent that we end up paying a lot for. Unfortunately, even if the council has that individual in house they are unlikely to free them up to do this or listen to them if they propose something radical.

What’s more many councils are a little paranoid about their staff saying too much outside of the council walls; and if staff aren’t free to go, discuss, debate and say the unthinkable what chances do we have of the genuinely good ideas being developed and worked through. There are exceptions (localgov digital) but how many good people leave because they want to be able to do far more than the constraints of their council will let them?

In addition, my bet is that many of the people who end up leaving will never be fully satisfied working with just one council; giving them the opportunity to work across the sector is harder to do but councils are small and if they can find a way to share this type of resource all the better (Phil Rumens had a nice idea about this)

3)      3) Influence

Local government can’t shake its hierarchical nature. I may have told this story before but I once knew a 23 year old who left local government to join a consultancy firm. With the first six weeks she was receiving direct phone calls from the Chief Executive of a major local authority she was working for. If you got into the job to make a difference then that sort of direct influence is exactly why you signed up and waiting ten years to work up the hierarchy is unlikely to be attractive.

It goes deeper though; when local authorities employ ‘experts’ they cut them a lot more slack than they do their own staff. One of my favourite companies is run by a talented woman who now advises councils to do what she had been trying to persuade her own council to do for years. As an outsider she is far more trusted than she ever was despite saying almost exactly the same things.

4)      4) Opportunity

Working for a council means fairly limited opportunities for advancement. We live in a world of low staff turnover, large scale redundancies and a tendency to prioritise experience over potential. There’s also a tendency to bring in someone from ‘outside’ when anything exciting is about to happen. Thus, if you want a new challenge you have to get out to get on. 

5)      5) Conclusion: So what?

Taken together the above list is a pretty powerful motivator for the brilliant member of local government staff. It’s also one of the reasons that many of the brilliant people I’ve met (although not all... We still have some great people in the sector) in local government no longer work for a council.

So, what should councils do? They should definitely do what they can to develop their own talent and then retain it. This should go without saying (although sadly this often isn't the case)

However, councils should also work really hard to develop externally that which they cannot retain themselves; partnering with the private, voluntary and social sectors and looking at how they can bring in ideas and talent and develop strong relationships with those who have the missing skills that local government does not. If local government can’t keep this talent on the payroll (and indeed, it may not want to as these people may be more productive working elsewhere) it becomes increasingly important to engage them in whatever way they can.

It would also be really nice if,  over the years, we see local councils starting to poach back the talent that has left. Some of these people will make far better senior managers than many of those who have been in authorities for many years.

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