The local government workforce

Local government needs a suitably skilled, well-motivated and engaged workforce that meets the changing needs of residents and can continue its work through challenging times.

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The task is considerable – with a workforce some 1.4 million strong, around 800 different occupations and a pay bill of approximately £22 billion a year. While the numbers are large, the majority of local government staff earn less than the 2018 UK average of £31,461 as identified by the Office for National Statistics.

A council’s paid employees are called officers. Unlike civil servants, who work for the government, local government officers have a duty to support the whole council, not just the cabinet. This means that they must remain politically neutral.

Very simply, councillors set the strategic direction and agree the policy framework of the council; officers are responsible for delivering the council’s policies and for the day-to-day operation of the organisation.

Officers fall broadly into two main categories: front-line and support. Front-line officers deliver services to the public – for example teachers, social workers, care assistants and refuse collectors. Support staff ensure that front-line services and the democratic process can operate smoothly – for example through administrative, finance, legal, communications and IT support.

Councils also deliver services through various partnerships and outsourcing arrangements. These staff are not directly employed by the council but are affected by decisions made by councillors.

Specific provisions will be included in the standing orders about the involvement that individual councillors can have in the appointment and dismissal of staff and in setting employment policies. Many councils have protocols or policies to govern councillor/officer relations. All councillors have a general duty of care towards officers, but the protocol will set a framework for members to promote equality and respect the impartiality and integrity of staff.

 By law, every council must appoint three key officers:

1. A head of the paid staff – usually the chief executive (or managing director) who advises councillors on policy, procedure, and legislation.

2. A monitoring officer – responsible for advising councillors of the legal framework within which they operate, and for ensuring that they understand if their decisions or actions could lead to a legal challenge or be found to be maladministration.

3. A Section 151 officer – usually the director of finance, whose task it is to monitor the financial affairs of the council.

The senior management team will head up the council’s main functions or departments. Good member/officer relationships are important to a high-performing authority, but the relationship between the leader or elected mayor and the chief executive is particularly important and can have a profound effect on the council’s performance. In some instances, more than one council share a senior management team or other management arrangements.