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One in five local government managers question senior leadership’s effectiveness – Social Market Foundation survey finds

  • A new report from the Social Market Foundation (SMF), in partnership with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), explores the state of management and leadership in local councils across England and Wales.
  • Over half (56%) of leaders and managers in local authorities believe their organisation isn’t ensuring accountability for failure, with the vast majority (69%) now reporting that critical management obstacles block them from doing their jobs.
  • Findings come as councils struggle after years of reduced fiscal support and increasing demand for services.

Low morale and an inability to attract and keep talented staff is impacting local governments’ ability to deliver services to their communities, a new report from the Social Market Foundation (SMF) in partnership with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has found.

The new research comes as councils across the UK struggle under considerable financial strain as years of reduced fiscal support and uncertain short-term funding pots continue to bite. Several local authorities in England have issued section 114 notices since 2021, effectively declaring themselves bankrupt.

The report, which draws on testimonies from senior managers and leaders across local authorities and a survey of UK local government leaders and managers, paints a worrying picture of the current state of leadership and management. One in five local authority leaders (20%) believe their senior leadership is ineffective, with two in five (40%) saying their senior leadership was also poor at motivating staff or failed to do so at all.

Performance management is also a problem area. Over half (56%) of leaders and managers believe their local authority isn’t ensuring accountability for failure, with the vast majority (69%) now reporting critical obstacles to them doing their jobs. Recruitment and retention problems are most frequently cited (38%), followed by challenges around internal bureaucracy (33%) and finance (32%).

Skills levels and training are key in high-performing organisations, and local government is no exception. However, the SMF found that whilst most managers (77%) had taken part in some leadership and management training in 2022, it was overwhelmingly unaccredited, and the average amount of days spent in training is lower than the UK average (2-4 days vs 6 days).

The report also features a case study from Surrey Heath Borough Council, located in the constituency of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary Michael Gove. The Council made headlines in September 2023 when it warned it faced effective bankruptcy within two years. Featuring interviews with Chief Executive Damien Roberts and senior colleagues, the report details how the Council is looking to turn around the authority with a focus on stronger management—transforming its organisational culture to recruit and retain quality staff, as well as drive up effective performance.

Roberts describes the scale of the challenge, including why structural reforms were necessary but insufficient alone for improving the organisation’s performance.

“…when I arrived, the members, and this was a cross party view that they wanted quite urgent, and significant changes to be made…there was a strong consensus in the organisation that something like this was needed…the structure hadn’t been looked at for more than a decade…it was necessary. But for me, the restructure is only the starting point”.

Anthony Painter, Director of Policy at the Chartered Management Institute, said:

“Local Government is in the jaws of a fiscal and demand crisis. Years of Government cuts and increasing local pressures, especially in social care, place enormous and sometimes unbearable strain on local authorities.  The ability of management and leadership to motivate and guide best organisational behaviours under difficult circumstances remains an indispensable skill when resources are increasingly strained.

“This research paints a worrying picture, but leadership and management failure is not inevitable. Investment  in quality leadership and management and reinforcing that capability relentlessly will help navigate stormy waters and is ultimately an investment in communities.”

Richard Hyde, Senior Researcher at Social Market Foundation, said:

“Good leadership and management deploying best practices are associated with better public sector organisational performance. Local government is no exception.

“Given the centrality of local government in daily life, sufficient numbers of, and sufficiently trained leaders and managers are vital.”

To ensure that good leadership and management practices become more prevalent across local government, the SMF has made the following recommendations:

  • Establish benchmarks for good quality leadership and management in local government and ensure Oflog includes assessments of leadership and management quality in its work
  • The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) should bring forward, in conjunction with local authorities and other relevant stakeholders, a comprehensive 10-year workforce strategy for local government. It needs to be accompanied by an increase in funding to councils to help improve the recruitment and retention of staff at all levels
  • Boost funding to councils to improve the recruitment and retention of staff at all levels

DLUHC should establish a local government leadership academy, similar to the ones that have been set up for the NHS and the Civil Service.

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