How to recruit a great DCS?

Recently published in the MJ, Tim Hills and Philip Emms explore the Association of Directors of Children’s Services annual DCS Update and what it takes to make a successful appoint in the highly specialised and highly competitive Director of Children’s Services market.

The post of director of children’s services is arguably the most highly-scrutinised in local government and is invariably among the most challenging to recruit to

In May, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) released its annual DCS Update, in which it gathers together information about changes in post holders of the statutory director of children’s services (DCS) role across the sector. Featuring data from April 2017 to March 2018, the report makes for interesting reading and provokes a number of observations about what is a highly specialised and fluctuating recruitment market.

It’s clear from the data that the market is still very busy. In total, 57 local authorities have changed their DCS over the period in question – this represents a substantial 38% out of the 152 upper tier councils in England. Indeed, the total of 65 changes (including periods of interim leadership) is the highest number of annual changes since the ADCS began recording this data a decade ago. GatenbySanderson is often asked to help support with DCS appointments and has felt the effects of the current climate. Having placed seven DCSs in 2017 (including directors of people), we have already supported seven appointments so far in 2018.

Given the large number of local authorities seeking to appoint DCSs, competition for candidates is high. In a service area in which recruitment campaigns often produce only a handful of candidates (in 2017 the average number of applications received for DCS campaigns managed by GatenbySanderson was nine), the question of how to ensure a successful appointment is increasingly pertinent. While there are many factors affecting the success of a DCS recruitment campaign, experience would suggest the key to attracting candidates lies in providing a strong and compelling proposition, as well as self-awareness and honesty, to which prospective applicants are drawn.

Naturally, there are unalterable factors that can influence the attractiveness of a given role, such as location and size of authority. Further aspects which might impact upon the number and quality of applications include negative Ofsted judgements, a relatively low salary or a strong, explicit preference to appoint a serving DCS. However, while that may be true of any of those factors in isolation, our recent experience would suggest they need not preclude a successful appointment, provided the local authority in question clearly and effectively articulates its proposition.

For instance, where a council has been taken into intervention or been found wanting in key areas by Ofsted, any damage this may inflict on recruitment prospects is mitigated where the authority has accepted their situation and begun to identify and address the causes, such that there is a visible and coherent improvement journey and a sense for candidates of an organisation moving in the right direction. Indeed, of the seven DCSs placed by GatenbySanderson last year, three were to councils with ‘inadequate’ children’s services.

Conversely, where a council has experienced a period of relative stability and positive outcomes in children’s services, there remains a need to market the director role effectively and create an exciting and challenging proposition for the market. In a context in which many professionals are energised and enthused by change and transformation, this can in fact be trickier than in the previous instance – strong performance is not in itself a guarantee of a strong field of applicants.

To offer some context, in a recent instance of working with an ‘inadequate’ authority we received 10 applications; elsewhere with a ‘good’ authority we received only six. In both instances, the recruiting authority was in an accessible location and paying a salary that reflected the prevailing market rate.

Similarly, the salary on offer for a post need not necessarily be a deciding factor in the strength of a field, provided the authority is realistic about what they are looking for. The ADCS 2017/18 figures show that there were 27 first-time DCSs appointed (permanent or interim), 25 of whom were working at assistant director level. It is crucial that there is an awareness among officers and members about exactly what they want and how the role is pitched – while a higher salary may be necessary if the requirement for a serving DCS is non-negotiable, a lower figure need not prohibit a fruitful appointment.

Once again, what is most important is that the council is clear on where they are and where they are going. Furthermore, how this is communicated is essential; does the authority provide clear information about their journey, are recruitment partners properly briefed, is there someone at the authority (such as the chief executive or the serving DCS) who can engage with prospective candidates from an early stage, etc? All of which enhance the candidate experience and buy-in to the role.

Another observation is that the recent trend of combining DCS and director of adult social services responsibilities in ‘twin-hat’ director of people roles appears to be waning – 17 authorities have disaggregated the services over the 12 months and only six combined their services, leaving a net 46 councils with twin-hatters. Any change in structure or portfolio has implications for recruitment and local authorities must clearly communicate the rationale behind a decision to return to separate social care directorates, having previously combined services. Individuals may have their own opinions about a preferred service model, but ultimately are more likely to apply for a role in a council with a clear, well-defined social care structure that supports its broader corporate agenda.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that, as of the end of the documented period (31 March 2018), there were 76 local authorities with female DCSs and 75 with male (plus one male/female jobshare). Clearly, gender balance and diversity are enormously important across all recruitment, not least in local government where officers need to reflect and understand the communities they serve. While this particular statistic suggests gender parity at this level, whether this is representative of broader social care sector demographics would require further analysis.

Children’s social care will always be a highpressure service area and an emotive subject, particularly in the modern financial climate within public services. Recruitment to DCS roles remains a tough and nuanced task in a specialist market with a finite pool of candidates. However, by fully understanding their own circumstances and requirements and communicating these effectively, thereby offering a strong and compelling proposition to the market, local authorities can greatly improve their chances of making a strong appointment.  

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