So, you want to work in local government?

Last night I was at an event hosted by the University of York called ‘Professional Connect’. This was a great idea – a chance for current students to find out more from alumni who are already on the inside. There were three streams – finance, management and law; media, journalism and publishing; and government, public and charity sector.

Amongst the gov/pub/3rd sector alumni was a wide array of different organisations and careers. There was a smattering of central government (Ministry of Justice, Government Olympic Executive, Office for National Statistics), voluntary sector (York CVS), teaching, social work, social enterprise (Eden Project, the Acumen group of social enterprises), charity (NSPCC), consultancy (Petersfield Northern, Jane Brown Coaching) and local government (Hull City Council). There was also breadth of experience with a couple of us who had graduated in 2006 versus those who had been on campus closer to its opening than today.

There was a lot of interest in the evening and it was really encouraging to see the number of people wanting to work in this sector. I hope that all those with an enthusiasm for public service and public services can find their way into work [update 23:00 7th March – WeLoveLocalGov‘s post ‘advice for the newbies’ is something you should bookmark for when that happens]. I had similar conversations with a few people (although there were those who wanted to talk about my take on international development as a career too) and I thought I might as well blog them, so here are my seven thoughts for those interested in local government as a career. I’m sure there are lots of things that you would have said if you’d been in my shoes so why not leave a comment with the best piece of advice you received when you were at this moment in life?

1. Love the public

If you’re looking to join local government I hope you have the public as your starting point.  If that’s not your motivator you’re probably better suited to a career elsewhere. For me the public are just one of the reasons why I love Local Gov.

2. Graduate Schemes

Graduate schemes can be brilliant. You get the benefit of structured training, access to mentoring and entrusted with responsibility. If they use a placement model then you learn how to work in different teams, you get an understanding of a big and complex organisation and that gives you the chance of seeing things in perspective. Those are reasons why I prize the two years I spent on my graduate scheme.

However, my experience suggests they won’t be without their issues. Be careful that the scheme is not oversold. Challenge the recruitment team about your end prospects – is there a strategy for how the organisation uses its graduates? What’s the track record of progression at its end? How do they act on feedback from previous years? Will it give you line management or budget experience? They may not be in a position to guarantee any of that but try to get under the skin of why they’re running a graduate scheme and what their goals are for it and you.

The National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP) is the big opportunity to join a  local government graduate scheme but it is incredibly competitive. I wasn’t on an NGDP scheme (I fell at the telephone interview) and in-house schemes like Hull’s were rare in 2008 but almost non-existent now – Hull’s was almost the first thing to be sacrificed as budgets were squeezed.

3. Flexible expectations

That means needing to be flexible in how you get on the ladder – geographically, in terms of the role itself and starting salary.

I live in York and commute to Hull which made sense in light of my wife’s phd requiring her to be in York but I do not recommend the 4 hours a day I spend travelling. I want to be part of the community where I work and the community where I live – my personal situation makes that difficult so I’d say geography is important to giving you good work-life balance. You’re young, you’re free, you’re able to move and you will probably have to (the south-east might be your best bet).

Some councils restrict advertisement of their jobs to internal candidates before they open things to the public. That makes it hard to get through the door, or to move from authority to authority but once you’re inside other opportunities might appear. However, the situation is difficult and will continue to be such as budgets are squeezed and recruitment is still frozen. Although things are maybe beginning to flow a little more now it will be highly competitive to apply for any jobs in the sector at the moment.

The Graduate scheme had a starting salary of £22,000ish with the added benefit of our part time MSc at INLOGOV. I think we were lucky. Aside from prestigious schemes like NGDP or Faststream I would be surprised if salaries were as good as that to start with – especially if you’re simply aiming to get your foot in the door. It certainly won’t compare with jobs in other sectors but then local government isn’t about the financial rewards or public glory.

I think this expectation modification bit of this is hard for us as a generation who have been taught in a way that accentuates our abilities, encourages us to tackle big questions and invites us to participate freely without deference to hierarchies and traditional relationships. The public sector places where you get to explore that straight out of university are highly prized and therefore highly competitive so you may need to play the long-game in terms of settling into a local government career. Or start elsewhere.

4. Your first job need not define you

Some people wind up in their planned career at the age of 21 and steadily progress along a logically defined career route. Sometimes I think I’d have preferred that to what the rest of us might experience which will apparently be a bit more hit and miss.

This was certainly the consensus from those alumni last night who had older and wiser heads. Many of them had done a series of different things before ending up in roles that made sense of their passions and in which they could thrive. Local government is ready made for both focus and variety – the scope of what happens under the public services umbrella is vast providing opportunities to be specialised, or to experience variety.

Although it’s trite it is true – all your experiences can be valuable so make the most of whatever it is you’re doing at whatever stage you’re at. But don’t settle for something long-term that doesn’t make sense of getting you where you want to be.

5. Local service delivery is changing

Times are hard. Budgets are short. Employment is scarce. And I don’t think the challenges facing local government have peaked yet.

And local government as a whole is responding in different ways. Some are exploring more visible innovative models, changing their entire cultures and thinking strategically about equipping their existing staff as well as enticing fresh-faced bright young things. But others are facing more immediate challenges that are occupying all their attention and their legacy processes are perhaps taking longer to disrupt and replace. Councils share a lot of characteristics but they’re also very different – it’s worth trying to get under the skin of the different organisations or getting a feel for what they do, particularly if you’re not familiar with them as a local citizen.

Irrespective of where an individual council might be on that spectrum of response I think much of what’s happening could lead to an exciting time for local government because there are new ideas, new mechanisms and new opportunities being explored. And actually quite a lot of where that’s happening, or how it’s being delivered will not be directly under the auspices of a council so cast your net wide and look at local social enterprises, regional organisations and consultancy groups (not all are evil).

[Update 23:00 7th March – I mentioned this thought provoking piece on what the future of local government might look like by Martin Howitt, and I’d also take a look at this one on Co-Operative Councils from Impower.]

6. Connect, share, collaborate

Given that lots of jobs are only advertised internally, budgets are squeezed and masses of people are applying for every job (79.64 for every one in Hull) the act of getting a job is really, really hard. Often people get ahead because of their relationships – nepotism is alive and well – so one of the things the Professional Connect event aimed to do was give access to those otherwise impenetrable networks, which is particularly true for the other sectors represented last night.

But when it comes to the world of local government you are able to engage with the discussions and the debate on your own merit and through your own efforts. It may not open doors into the corridors of power but you can get involved with local government before you find a job in our midst.

Personally I stumbled across a brilliant community of interest and practice through Twitter and I think it can be used by graduates seeking work to learn about what’s going on, and importantly to feed back into the discussions. So I would encourage people to read and comment on blogs (the Public Sector Bloggers feed is a great one to start with) but there are a plethora of different places to share ideas and engage with real people. And I would say it’s a really good habit to form for yourself (I wish I was better at it myself) because it’s a great way to order your thoughts and reflect on what’s going on.

Something else that occurred to me in passing last night was the value of the unconference. That’s unlikely to be a model that you’re heard about at university but because they’re open to all, and free to attend, you may find that they’re a great place to go and learn about the sector and meet the epic visionaries within the sector. Although putting attendance at a govcamp may not yet benefit your CV they will benefit your confidence and appreciation for the issues at hand as well as meeting some cracking people who, you never know, may be very keen to work with a new graduate of your calibre.

At this point I should extol the virtue of LinkedIn but I’ve not yet found myself plugged into the discussions which take place on there as much as those which happen elsewhere. It’s all part of the same issue though – helping to give you the foundations on which you can build when you arrive on the job market.

7. Protect your passion

If you’ve got a dream about what you want to do with your professional (or personal) life then keep that alive. You’re going to be working for many years. You’ve got time to explore what you want. And you can be patient about getting there. There’s no sense in sacrificing your spark simply to put food on the table.

[Update 14:10 9th March – since I posted this I’ve been sent a few relevant tweets. Two of them are from the Chief Executives of Leeds City Council and City of York Council. The other is a helpful discussion forum on the student room about public sector careers.]

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...

  • @humberhull

    Ben an interesting read to your Hull experiences. When I applied for jobs in local gov friends warned me it may be difficult to find a way in but it is possible. The hoops and red tape have been cut along with budgets. We’re in for a bumpy ride but there are some great people who work in local gov and making a positive difference to the lives of local people is what it’s all about.

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