Mark Whitehead 21 June 2018

A cry for help?

A recent survey on the state of local government presented a bleak picture of vulnerable people left without help, families forced to live in mouldy, overcrowded properties, roads pitted by huge potholes and vital services collapsing.

According to Unison, the main local government union, more than half the staff it surveyed said they wanted to quit their jobs for less stressful work elsewhere.

Unfortunately for Unison, many senior managers in local authorities up and down the country will have taken the survey with the proverbial pinch of salt. 'Ask a bunch of people if they feel stressed and they will say yes,' as one observer put it to LocalGov.

The survey sample of 21,000 respondents was self-selecting. So it is not hard to imagine that many of them will have been union activists who would be likely to insist that the Government's austerity policy is wreaking havoc on essential services.

However, Unison is a major trade union and when it speaks it should be taken seriously. It would not be wise to dismiss out of hand general secretary Dave Prentis's warning that 'local services are collapsing and council workers are being left to pick up the pieces and do the best they can amid the chaos'.

Wrapped as may be in hyperbole, there is at least a grain of truth in what he says. It is commonly accepted that a huge amount of money has been sucked out of local government under the austerity measures - and there is worse to come. Jobs have been lost, services reduced and staff pay cut in real terms over the years.

But while recognising the damage being perpetrated it is crucial for anyone who wants to protect local government to understand what is happening and what can be done in response.

The agenda set for local government is one of modernisation: to transform traditionally remote, bureaucratic, and hierarchical councils into flexible, responsive institutions working squarely in the interests of their local communities.

At the same time, however, councils are being forced to slash their budgets - not a formula for carrying out the kind of reforms the Government seeks. Transformation may save money in the longer term through greater efficiency but it requires initial investment to make it work.

Unions have traditionally been suspicious of modernisation schemes and often with good reason. Too often they are imposed by senior managers in secure jobs upon lower-paid workers who are forced into new teams and sometimes instructed to adopt new policies they know will be ineffective.

But the two objectives - to modernise and at the same time protect jobs and services - need not be mutually exclusive.

Enlightened HR directors know that change management programmes need to support of everyone involved if they are to be truly effective. So - even if some staff reductions are going to be necessary - a huge effort must be made to enlist the workforce before the programme begins.

In the current circumstances that can only be done if managers show themselves to be firmly on the side of their workforce - and on the side of local government. If the workforce is concerned about the effects of proposed reductions in services and jobs, managers must find ways of assuaging those fears - or at least speaking out in opposition.

A small piece of evidence from the Unison survey passed to LocalGov suggests dissatisfaction with the current state of local government may be shared by at least some senior managers - 76% of whom said they did not think the quality of services had improved.

The unions, for their part, need to show they are prepared to listen to proposals for change and discuss them seriously. Ideally, they need to show they can contribute positively to creating a more responsive and flexible service while protecting their members' jobs and conditions.

It is a complex formula but essential if local government is to progress. In this context, Unison's latest survey can be seen as a cry for help from an embattled workforce. Managers cannot pretend such fears are without foundation. They need to respond constructively.

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