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The tilt towards tech in training the next generation of councillors

Source: PSE Feb/March 2019

With local government elections on the horizon in spring this year, Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), discusses the technological evolution local authorities are using to train the next generation of councillors.

Training for council officers, and especially for elected members, can be a sensitive subject. When council budgets are so squeezed that essential services are under threat, can we justify spending money on staff and councillor development? Isn’t it a waste of scarce resources? And with the press always happy to run stories about local government inefficiency and town hall fat cats, isn’t it too much of a risk?

Research by the LGA shows that councils have continued to spend money on training but that these budgets have been squeezed – and only around half of councils say they will maintain them at the current level.

Moreover, the level of median expenditure identified by the LGA (£144 for officers, £100 for councillors) doesn’t buy much from external training providers. So, clearly, there are limited resources and opportunity for training.

But staff at councils can reasonably expect a variety of different jobs at different grades in their career, and it’s fiscally efficient to retain staff with a corporate knowledge rather than copy Whitehall, which has a staff turnover equivalent to a call centre. That’s especially true as the overall council workforce shrinks.

Being promoted to a senior leadership role will require different skills for which residents would expect them to be trained in, particularly on finance. At LGiU, we offer a number of training opportunities for members and officers.

Our most popular courses are ‘bread and butter’ ones: finance, leadership, being an effective councillor, and practical project management, amongst other pathways.

Each year there are local elections which sees a new intake of elected members. As such, the LGiU regularly receives requests to run sessions supporting an individual council’s induction programmes, which might include: chairing skills, public speaking, managing personal safety, local government finance, or community leadership. Councillors need these skills to effectively represent the people who elected them.

We have also had requests for training in developing a commercially-aware organisational culture, as well as using social media.

While there is a trend to learn online as it’s cheaper, the move to a tech-based service delivery model actually underlines the importance of continual, effective training. 

If a council doesn’t advance with the evolution of technology, it risks leaving its staff and residents behind. To adopt more efficient practices, staff need to be trained.

For example, we are seeing signs of AI being used to assess human situations and circumstances, including the sensitive agenda of determining when children are at risk of maltreatment. A recent article by The Guardian identified that “at least five local authorities in England have developed or implemented a predictive analytics system for child safeguarding,” and that more than 350,000 people’s data “has been incorporated into the different predictive systems.”

Enfield Council in north London, for example, has introduced Amelia, a robot technology dedicated to frontline council services – such as taking resident queries or authenticating licenses.

Moving to a tech-based world will require building up skills, learning from others, and potentially working with other local authorities – exactly the sort of thing the traditional training model provides.

Essentially, the challenge for councils is to argue for the budget and build it into forecasting, as an untrained workforce is an unproductive one. Spending money on developing people can be a hard sell, but it’s an essential investment in the future and it directly benefits the communities local government serves. A local government workforce that’s deskilled and left behind isn’t good for anyone.


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