Leadership qualities needed in reform


27 Jun 2018

Leadership qualities needed in reform

The Local Government Association (LGA) briefing report 2017 stated that there is an estimated £5.8 billion funding gap facing local authorities by 2020[1]. The need to do more with less is paramount to the need to reform our local services; a task that is crucial to our economy; the responsibility of everyone but strategized by our public sector leadership teams. So, what qualities do our leaders need to overcome such a monumental challenge? 

At Penna, we find, excite and secure the best local authority leaders. We know that every organisation is unique, but what about the people within them? I’ve therefore been speaking with Chief Executives across the country to gain their perspective and asked what qualities their leadership teams exhibit, drawing attention to some of the challenges and changes they have overcome.

Courage: Wigan Council

Wigan Council was one of the worst hit authorities in the UK after the announcement of austerity eight years ago.  Needless to say there was a monumental task to reform their services in light of funding cuts; they had to set a clear vision to take them to 2020 that would reform their services and financial position, knowing that simply cutting services wouldn’t work. It would need to be done systematically to take out the demand from the system. Donna Hall, Chief Executive for Wigan Council says that they had to radically change their approach. They created The Deal, a two way pledge between the council and the people of Wigan that applied eight principles which sit at the heart of their asset based approach.

Over the last five years the council has saved £115million through efficiency measures, reforming services and reducing demand[2]. Five years on, they have recently been shortlisted as one of the most efficient councils in the country. A very impressive turn around... So what did it take for them to get there?

Donna says, “Courage; to think differently, courage to remove those that didn’t want to change with us... I had to restructure and get rid of half of my management team as they didn’t understand what we wanted to do or be a part of public sector reform... it took being bold and radical with people around you and working with people to find solutions.”

The Deal is not a project or programme, Donna says “it is the way we work, forever. We need to challenge the norms every day. It infects the organisation and those around it in the wider public sector system and infects them with the asset based approach. Following the status quo and failure weren’t an option.  We didn’t want to close everything in the system so when we looked at demand it had to be done in a different way; for example shifting demand out of an acute setting into a community setting where people are supported.”

You can find out more about The Deal here

Ambition: Greater Manchester Combined Authority

Looking at reform from a system wide view, I turned to Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), and their approach to their devolved health and social care system.  All of the regions’ NHS and local authorities are involved in a devolution partnership with a vision to create a sustainable and successful health and social care system in Greater Manchester by 2021. Their strategic plan is focused towards closing their predicted £2billion shortfall in funding whilst bringing the biggest, fasted improvement to health, wealth and wellbeing of £2.8 million people who live in the cities and towns within Greater Manchester[3]

Their current system is unsustainable and delivering the wrong outcomes for the people of Greater Manchester. It is the ambition to change that system that Eamonn Boylan, Chief Executive of GMCA is most proud of. He says, “Nowhere do you see more ambition than in the steps we are taking with our health and social care system. We need to challenge the norms and take on enormous financial challenge that the care system presents and consume our own smoke. It’s extremely bold – we are going to give it the best shot.”

One of the biggest challenges for Eamonn so far has been trying to change the nature of public services and their relationship with people at a time of taking money out of the system. The financial pressures are enormous, bringing people together and adopting place based behaviour will be imperative to their success.

The ambition of the Combined Authority stems from the pride of the people. Eamonn says, “Across Greater Manchester, people are patriotic and have a fierce pride about their places. Behavioural change is essential – assuming organisational pride and moving that towards a focus. You will find pride in locality, community, and place – you will find it everywhere across the conurbation. The challenge is aligning our public service delivery to reflect and support their pride, and realise this vision and ambition for their places.”

Communication: Sunderland City Council

Having worked with 103 local authorities in the country, Irene Lucas CBE’s experience in working with leadership teams throughout austerity is renowned. So what is her view on the qualities needed to succeed in reform?

In the current climate, she says, “political acumen, intellectual ability, and emotional intelligence are all very important attributes, and the skills you need are resilience, innovation and the ability to move quickly.” Most important, however is communication with your people.  Irene says, “Having certainty on the direction of travel and the ability to communicate that direction with your teams, so you can take people with you on that journey is really important.”

Another important aspect that Irene and I touched upon was understanding that every place is unique and has its own needs, with different challenges and different people to serve; what works in Manchester may not work for Sunderland. At Penna, we see different challenges for different authorities that we work with, and indeed different skills needed for the same job title– for example when we worked with Manchester City Council to find their next Chief Executive, they needed someone able to focus on their service delivery and improvement programme to ensure the City Council was delivering the very best for citizens as well as creating a great city. Working with Sunderland’s Children’s Company, Together for Children, to find their next CEO and Director of Children’s Services the focus was on partnership working and a business approach, looking for someone with understanding of how to achieve better outcomes for children and young people.

In the places Irene has worked, she has wanted to be crystal clear on what the place needs. Irene says, “We get that understanding from spending time with people and then by triangulating what you hear. You cannot replicate what you’ve done before as no two places are the same.” Resistance to change has been a challenge for most authorities, which Irene describes as “one third of the workforce will welcome change, one third won’t and one third will be on the fence... which is why communication is so important, and people need to be informed not just about the  how and the when, but the why.”

As a team, Sunderland has been hugely successful in dealing with austerity. Irene is proud of the teams at the council for the funding they have released in renegotiating contracts, and for the appetite they have for innovation and appropriate risk. Her finish line from a presentation at a recent Chief Executive’s Summit crystallises her approach to reform…  she said quite simply, “the situation in local government isn’t going to change… there is no waiting for the storm to pass; you have to learn to dance in the rain.”

Unity: South Tyneside Council

Reforming public service requires the ability to build strong and effective working relationships system-wide.  Martin Swales, Chief Executive of South Tyneside Council, believes that adopting a single vision approach with stakeholders is crucial in delivering truly transformational services whilst also realising cost efficiencies.  Martin says, “Strengthening relationships with public sector partners to achieve more with less is a key principle of our approach to maximising value from the public pound”. 

It’s the unity of people and systems, which have allowed South Tyneside to get to where they are today. Martin says that this is about “having a broad reach and having sight of the longer term goals and working together to achieve them.” One impressive example of the council’s partnership initiatives and unified approach is the result of their Community Asset Transfer programme; which involves key stakeholders from the private and third sectors.  Martin says that the programme is “championed by our Elected Members; the Council is developing new relationships with residents and third sector groups to give them more control over the services they wish to see in their communities.  We have supported community groups to develop Community Interest Companies to take charge of Community Associations and transfer smaller branch libraries to the hands of volunteers”.  Overall the Council has now agreed in principle to the asset transfer of nineteen facilities to a range of social enterprises.  

Martin highlighted that the achievements they have made so far have been made as a team. He attributes much of the success to the single vision approach adopted by Elected Members, staff and partners.  He says “[as leaders] we sit at the centre of the wheel and not the top of the tree – we must face challenges with a pragmatic and ‘person-centred’ approach”.

Reflective of this approach is their recent recognition as a “high performing council with many outstanding features” in an October 2017 LGA Corporate Peer Challenge.  In the same month, an Ofsted Inspection of Services for Children (SIF) resulted in an overall ‘Good’ judgement and ‘Outstanding’ rating of Adoption services.  Particular praise was given to ‘leadership and management’ performance through the awarding of an ‘Annex O’ and in March 2018 the Council was selected as a ‘Partner in Practice’ as part of the DfE’s Sector Led Improvement Programme.

Penna View

Whilst every local authority in the country is facing austerity, they are all facing it differently. I’m impressed that under significant pressure, our local authorities have stepped up their game and proven that change that was previously unpalatable is completely achievable.

At Penna, we work to support councils and their local communities by finding bespoke solutions. Qualities like courage, ambition, unity and communication cannot be matched from a job specification to a CV. Understanding someone’s drive, passion and motivations is what really helps us to identify who is well placed for the organisation and their culture .

Each organisation is unique, and so are the people that serve them.

Gemma Matin is a Business Development Consultant at Penna