Shane Lynch

Colin Cottell spoke with the HR director of Islington Council

April 2014 | By Colin Cottell

FROM APRIL 2014's RECRUITER MAGAZINE

Colin Cottell spoke with the HR director of Islington Council

With its long corridors and gloomy interior, there is a distinctly old-fashioned feel to Islington Town Hall in North London. The overall impression is of a bygone municipal age.

However, any notion that the council is stuck in a backwater and has not moved with the times is soon dispelled by Shane Lynch, the council’s energetic and personable HR director. 

“It’s not a safe 9-5 job doing the same thing and forever going to meetings — it’s a very fluid environment, with massive levels of change,” says Lynch, as he reels off the types of attributes required of today’s Islington Council workers, which include “creative thinking, innovation and flexibility, being able to work in that kind of environment”.

These qualities are certainly needed by Lynch and his resourcing colleagues, as they face up to a climate of continuing financial austerity that brought recruitment at the council to a virtual halt, and now forces Lynch to think the previously unthinkable about how to better organise recruitment to save money.

“My entire time here has been framed by budget cuts, with almost 500 job posts cut due to redundancy across the council, which puts a strain pretty much across all the teams in HR,” he says, as we talk in an appropriately austere grey-walled office, devoid of all creature comforts, with a table and chairs, and a black VDU screen. 

In Lynch’s first year, spending on recruitment advertising went from £600k to zero overnight, while recruitment activity “pretty much disappeared” from 400 hires to under 200, and the resourcing team’s headcount fell from 14 to eight. “We couldn’t see the future,” says Lynch, without a hint of rancour, his strong West of Ireland accent still noticeable despite more than a decade in the UK.

Although recruitment has picked up again in 2014, this is no panacea for Lynch and his team. As he explains, the council’s strategic decision to deliver all its services in-house, which has already led to the number of permanent employees rising by 1,500 during 2012 and 2013 to 5,200, has brought its own challenges for his already-stretched department. 

“The difficulty is delivering a full range of services during this period of austerity. We are delivering with less and less,” he says. There is now one HR person to every 110 staff compared to one to every 65 staff previously, which is “quite a change for people”, he says.

At the same time, Lynch says the change from no recruitment activity to speak of other than via the council’s website between 2010 and the beginning of this year left his team facing “a whole new world”, one characterised by social media and Google, that his staff had not experienced before. Similarly, Lynch says that Islington’s employer brand “had ceased to be important”. 

However, thanks to a new resourcing manager, employees’ ability to pick up new sourcing techniques has been made relatively painless “because people use so much technology in their personal lives”, An increase in the size of the team has helped the resourcing function to become better to equipped to face the future. 

It will certainly need to be. For, if you think that the current environment at Islington is a difficult one, then the next four years, during which Islington expects to see its budget cut by a further £95m, is enough to give any recruiter nightmares. 

“Read the Daily Mail, and you think everyone is sitting on their backsides doing nothing. Actually, the fat is gone and we are eating into the muscle and, to continue the analogy, amputating things,” says Lynch, firmly putting to bed any remaining misconceptions of municipal munificence. 

“People don’t like change by nature, and nobody likes change for change’s sake,” continues Lynch. However, with signs that austerity is if anything tightening its grip, Lynch has determinably thrown himself into helping the council to live within its means.

One option — sharing services — has already been implemented. Islington shares an internal audit function, as well as a 50-strong public health team.

But Lynch sees no reason why it should stop there. 

While joining two transactional HR teams, for example, isn’t a great money saver because “the same volume of work is still there, there is no reason one cannot recruit for Haringey, Islington and Camden”, he says. “There are similar processes, similar checks and probably identical attraction strategies. It just needs the will, and all the processes and systems need to be aligned.”

Recruitment agencies are another area that Lynch has identified for cost savings. This year, Islington expects to spend £22m on agencies, but he has ambitious ideas to cut that to around £15m by setting up an in-house agency at the council.

With Islington paying an average margin of 38% to agencies via its contract with neutral vendor partner Comensura, Lynch says the council “has reached the stage where we cannot squeeze value from agencies any more”. “The only way we can get it cheaper is setting up an agency so we can directly engage and payroll those staff,” he says. Lynch reckons that every £7m not spent on agencies saves the council £1m. 

Lynch is at pains to point out, however, that no in-house agency could replace commercial agencies completely. “It would be an incremental process, and we will always need agency staff,” he says. While the council’s own agency would begin by supplying hourly paid manual workers, he says he cannot envisage a day when the council supplies it own legal, finance and social workers. “There is a degree of difficulty trying to recruit these people, so we would focus on high-volume, low-cost areas,” he explains.

Lynch says that, depending on the level of simplicity of the model, a council-owned and managed agency could be up and running within six months of a decision being taken.

For Lynch, the creation of an in-house agency would represent a return to his earlier recruitment consultant roots. After leaving Ireland for the UK in the late 1990s, Lynch initially worked for Hays. Frustrated with the corporate aspects of a big FTSE 100 company, he felt the urge to work for a start-up, joining Morgan Law, and becoming its third member of staff. “There were almost no rules, it was very unstructured, much more entrepreneurial and a lot more free flowing… I enjoyed my time there,” he says. 

However, after five years the absence of a distinct career path within agency recruitment, a desire to continue his studies and a sense that the clients he wined and dined “appeared to have a better life” than he did led Lynch to take up an opportunity at Hertfordshire County Council, where he managed its outsourced recruitment contract with Manpower. Further local authority positions followed in the HR sphere, culminating in his current job.

Lynch says that one obvious difference between the private sector and local government is that the latter is political, with each town hall administration having its own priorities. However, he says that in Islington at least he has a relatively free hand, unencumbered by layers of council bureaucracy or micromanaging councillors. “There is good access to the chief executive, corporate directors and council members, and for anything in the HR sphere decision making is quick… within reason, something I decide can pretty much be implemented immediately, almost,” he says. 

While the environment at Islington is conducive to decision making, there is no escaping the all-pervasive influence of budget pressures, however. “There is no way we can match or hope to match salaries,” says Lynch, in reference to the council’s inability to match the financial rewards offered by City employers down the road. 

Happily, says Lynch, the council still has its attractions. “Some graduates are minded to work in the public sector because they want to give something back to or support the local community,” he says, while flexible working and a good benefits package appeal to many. 

The proverbial gamekeeper turned poacher, Lynch is not shy in pointing out that councils have certain advantages over agency recruiters who, he contends, are driven to put forward the perfect candidate because this is what they think the client wants. As a result, Lynch suggests, “they tend to be narrower in their search”, submitting only people with experience in insurance for insurance jobs, for example.

And he questions the thinking that lead some not to put forward candidates, because they might not fit the culture. “The notion that candidates can’t pick it up in weeks and months is strange,” he adds.

In contrast, he says councils are in a position to have a broader mindset, and are therefore more open to people with different career paths from different sectors. “It is not that difficult if you are in HR or finance to go from one industry to another,” he says. 

It’s a message that Lynch, who has successfully made the leap from the “relentless” world of agency recruitment, which to the ongoing austerity of local government, is better qualified than most to convey.

Shane Lynch’s philosophy of recruitment

“Trying to make the manager’s life as easy as possible — that is where we add value”

Shane Lynch’s Secret of Success

“Take opportunities when they arise. Nobody is going take them for you — you need to drive yourself”

Shane Lynch's CV

August 2009-present: Head of HR, Islington Council

August 2007-August 2009: Head of HR shared services, Camden Council

February 2005-August 2007: Manager, workforce and information, Hertfordshire County Council

October 2002- February 2005: Business manager, Morgan Law

October 1999-October 2002: Business manager, Hays Accounting Personnel 

EDUCATION

2007: MA, HR management, University of Hertfordshire 

1999: Master’s degree in economics, University College Cork

1997: Accounting and finance degree, University of Limerick

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