Public servants deserve more than a handclap


As we emerge from Covid and get back to normal, local government is making headlines again with debates around above-inflation pay rises, industrial action and challenges in attracting and retaining people.


It seems we are reverting to the pre-pandemic bad old ways, where we took our healthcare, refuse and other council staff for granted.


It would be better if we could take the taking silver linings from the pandemic experience and build on the positives and the public’s elevated recognition of these key workers and their essential work.


Local government and public servants (leaders and employees alike) have been pummelled in recent years by austerity, statutory duties versus ever-decreasing funding, and staff's inevitable demotivation.


The Trades Union Congress has warned that a toxic mix of low pay, high workloads and a broader lack of recognition pushes hard-pressed public servants to the brink. Its latest surveys indicate that 21% of key workers in the sector are ‘actively considering’ a move to another profession.


The research is backed up by a survey from HR consultancy Randstad, which has found that 64% of employees in the public sector are feeling ‘confident to move to a new job in the next couple of months’.

To tackle this, councils and local government can learn from the private sector. For example, a recent article on business website, Fast Company, talks of the pandemic driving ‘The Great Resignation’, where employees have a newfound motivation to find meaningful work.


The article highlights what leaders should be doing about it, framed by three types of organisational commitment, with the focus on where their actions will have the most impact:

  1. Continuance commitment - a focus on compensation

  2. Affective commitment - a focus on the emotional attachment to the people, culture or work itself

  3. Normative commitment - social perceptions of the role and what is right and wrong related to employment

The article also emphasises the laser focus leaders must have on employee health and well-being. All these also apply to local government, with clear advantages already in social perceptions and emotional attachment for many public servants.


There is also an opportunity now to make them an integral part of a bigger strategic step forward, with an equal emphasis on how work can be more meaningful for people as they contribute to how things are done. If managed well, this will also bring sustainable operational benefits and break some of the toxic, outdated staff relations issues. A fourth commitment which we will call the destination commitment.


Research shows there is pent up demand and willingness from people to be a part of where their organisation is going. Great ideas, innovation, and front-line operational experience are being wasted by being excluded. By putting people in the driving seat, their full potential can be unlocked, and sustainable operational improvements will also come in return.


Covid has made a profound difference to employees’ views of what their organisation is doing, how they work, the value of their work and their relationship with their colleagues and leadership team. It is particularly true in local government, where public perception changes have also been widely reported. And change shouldn’t be suppressed or ignored but positively grasped and encouraged.


Public servants expect to influence more than just where or how they work. They want to actively contribute to their organisation's vision, innovation, and operational excellence. Unlocking this potential in a business-like way needs to be a focus while ensuring that the newly empowered people understand their responsibilities and the operational priorities.


To do this, people need to have the trust to express their ideas, criticisms and feelings openly and safely without judgement. In return, they will also have the maturity to grasp this new responsibility enthusiastically and seriously – and reciprocate with their everyday deeds and how they work with the public.


Crucially they will also be more likely to bring their discretionary energy to the organisation and want to stay.


Three essential ingredients leaders must bring to a destination commitment:

  1. They want to listen and to change. A belief that things can be better. They want to know – good and bad – how employees feel and what they think. They are keen to prioritise and enact their new ideas. They recognise that the people best positioned to rethink the current business are those closest to the processes and experiences that most need improvement.

  2. They want to combine forces with employees to revisit what they are doing, why and how they are doing it. More than the usual ‘word-crafting’, they must wish to set a crystal-clear north star and direction of travel, backed by shared operational plans and metrics and everyday deeds—a universally successful destination.

  3. They need a business-like and pragmatic framework to unlock this potential bespoke to the societal context. Processes and workstreams must be aligned to financial years and budgets to ultimately develop the universally successful destination, with no daylight between this and operational plans, objectives, mission, vision, and people plan.

These times offer a unique opportunity for local government leaders to take a more imaginative, optimistic, respectful and visionary view of their working relationship with the people they employ. Things can change for the better. So many real-world solutions and great ideas are locked away, unsaid by public servants at the front line or close to processes that most need fixing.


By proactively engaging even with those who seem not to care, their accumulated operational experience, understanding of the process, and good ideas will be brought to the surface. At worst, they will vent their frustrations. Better out than in.


Experience shows that the most cynical can often surprise, and all will benefit from the pragmatic balancing of people in the joint pursuit of a shared end goal. When you have a team of public servants that understand what success looks like for them and for the team they are a part of, they will work collectively and boost performance. Alongside fair compensation, health and well-being, it will create another meaningful win for the individual and, in turn, the organisation and the public for the long term.



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