Anne-Marie Scott 15 April 2020

Re-write the rules of recruitment

We are facing unprecedented challenges across public services this year, and our recruitment response needs to be radically different if we are to persuade good staff to work in the public sector.

ODS (Oxford Direct Services) is a LATCo or Local Authority Trading Company; a social enterprise inspired company wholly owned by Oxford City Council, allowing the council to put more profit back into the community. As a local authority and commercial service provider, we are different from a local council HR team, but many of the challenges are the same.

At ODS our employees are dedicated to the public, who rely on them to keep their city and surrounding environment safe and clean. These team members take on essential work which, for many people, wouldn’t be a first-choice career path – creating a major challenge for us to find candidates and keep them engaged in both the work and the organisation.

We know that it’s essential to think differently about the psychological contract – it used to be that people chose the public sector because it was safe, and the conditions were good – albeit the pay might have been lower than could be commanded in the private sector. But we are now expected to operate more commercially, at lower cost, with less resource to support our workforce and sometimes the need to radically change, reduce or outsource jobs.

We need to re-write the contract and be explicit about what we offer and what we expect.

We have a strong set of values, and we need people committed to providing excellence in public and commercial services, reflecting those values. But we no longer have a monopoly on that, nor can we assume it is implicit – we need to make it much more explicit. Recruiting managers need to attract the right kind of person for the job. At ODS, our whole ethos is about ‘doing good’ but this isn’t only about delivering excellent public services – it is also about doing good for our people, our community, and our city.

In recruitment, we try to strongly communicate our social values, combined with a more commercial practice; generating profit for purpose, we want to attract people who share our values and who actively want to work in an environment that serves the community but also within which they can action meaningful change where it is needed and would ‘do good’. We strive to make sure that our values permeate everything; through our policies, practices, rewards and development because these values build on our reputation and purpose for doing good.

Local government roles have traditionally been structured and linear; progression takes time and often depends on waiting for a role to be vacated. To appeal to the market today (particularly the younger market) we need to offer more flexibility, faster progression, clear and tangible rewards, access to learning and a real sense of shared purpose and belonging.

Most of all we need to engage at a values level – we need to make sure our values sing out in everything we do and that people feel and see that they are making a difference, can understand their role in delivering our business objectives and really want to do a good job, not just watch the clock until they can go home again.

To achieve this, we need to balance trust and empowerment with control and assurance – this can be a really tricky balance to strike and needs line managers to be skilled communicators, supportive coaches and know when and where to draw the line.

Looking to employee benefits, we are always looking for ways to support our team, and we allow for flexible working wherever the business needs allow, good pension provision, reduced cost access to local leisure facilities, and the option to buy extra holiday, all designed to suit individual lifestyles. We invest in wellbeing initiatives and support for mental health and wellbeing; we try to make ODS a community where we support and help each other to balance work and life, deal with personal challenges and pursue professional growth.

Finally, diversity breeds diversity – and I mean diversity in its widest sense – diversity of thinking, background, experience and approach will bring us the innovation and drive that we need to deliver great public services going forward.

Local authorities need to move away from restrictive grading and progression systems, overly defined roles and tick box appraisal systems – leaders need to consider rewarding performance in a whole different way and create real opportunity for personal and career development. Recruiters should also consider apprenticeships, T levels and trainee roles to develop young local talent within a new culture of local authority work.

People are rewarded by more than just their salary when they do a good job, and we should offer more than just a salary in return. There are many challenges to face within the public sector at the moment, and this is why it’s so important to recruit the most dedicated team members available for what really is one of the most important jobs in the UK.

Specific initiatives:

  • Drop annual ‘tick box’ appraisal system in favour of regular performance and wellbeing conversations
  • Invest in line managers – particularly how to hold good conversations, coach staff, actively tackle poor performance, give credit where due and recognise/nurture potential
  • Overtly and publicly reward those who demonstrate our values (the ‘doing good’ awards) - particularly focussed on front-line delivery
  • Invest in communications resource and develop new approaches to engaging with people, celebrate success however small
  • Invest in wellbeing initiatives (mental and physical) to build resilience
  • Make sure the employer brand says what you need it to say
  • Partnering with local schools and colleges to actively promote ODS as a local employer of choice through work experience and apprenticeship schemes

Anne-Marie Scott is director of human resources at ODS

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