Rethinking for reset and recovery

Written by: Nick Cole is a senior consultant with GatenbySanderson’s local government executive search practice
Published on: 4 Mar 2021

In a recent R&R article, my colleague Phil Whitman explored the need for local authority leaders and senior manager to embrace an adaptive leadership style. He argued that the art of this form of leadership was to be neither permanently rooted in operational issues (‘on the dance floor’), nor solely focused on the strategic issues (‘in the balcony’), but instead to be able to move in and out of challenging situations objectively while maintaining grip on the matter at hand. He argued that leadership and management teams must be able to move back and forth as both ‘participant and observer’.

In much of our work, we see this every day among those in local government statutory roles, where personal and reputational risk often requires detailed knowledge or control of a serious and high-profile issue, yet at the same time the need to see how it fits into the ‘big picture’. Leadership in local government can be a lonely place in such roles, something felt more keenly in the last year as leaders (through no choice of their own) have had to throw themselves into managing detailed operational responses to the COVID-19 crisis.

So a couple of thoughts and observations. Who should you turn to, to support, enable and problem solve your way out of things? Who is in the organisation with the skills and experience to do this? Who are your participants and observers? And more importantly, as local authorities reset, recover and refocus, what can be learned from the pandemic to fundamentally shift the dial on how local government services are delivered?

While much focus (and rightly so) has been on social care, education, regeneration and local business, less had been said about the council teams who enable change and recovery. Those teams who are used to switching between the dance floor and the balcony: the corporate centre; finance; HR; OD; estates; procurement; IT; legal and democratic services. The people who balance the books, keep the lights on and uphold democracy. Yet, at the same time, these resources are needed in the balcony with elected members and the leadership team to make sense of disruption and evaluate its longer-term organisational impact.

Most importantly, they are a vital source of ideas for how better the council should be run, as a result of the experience. They are, by nature of their professions, the objective observer at a strategic level and the provider of operational resolutions.

As a public governor in a small NHS Foundation Trust, I saw the immediate impact of lockdown on the corporate centre. Overnight, all of the usual governance arrangements were suspended; the organisation had to move into a command and control structure. The people agenda shifted immediately to mental and physical wellbeing and safeguarding. Procurement had to acquire items in volumes like never before, finance had to unblock or redirect vital resources to the frontline, IT and digital teams had to shift communication channels to avoid the need for human contact, estates had to reconfigure the entire site to ‘hold’ and ‘cold’. This of course was the right approach, but not without potential risk of Governors feeling democratically excluded.

Similarly, in local government, we have all seen our corporate centre colleagues rise to this challenge – HR and ODs showing relentless focus on protecting and supporting colleagues, finance managing millions in grants to keep local business afloat, IT delivering whole-organisation agile working solutions in a handful of days rather than years. As we move into recovery in 2021, big issues both remain and will return again – funding, reorganisation, governance reviews, estate rationalisation, rethinking skills and workplace culture. But the corporate centre will continue to support, challenge and find the creative solutions needed to adapt, improve and flourish. Some core themes, a legacy of this current agility will, no doubt, be a playlist for some time to come.

Efficiency. Local authorities have gotten closer to their communities despite physical restrictions and can now involve them in shaping how they want to receive services in the future; remotely, 24/7 and at lower cost. Estate reconfiguration could deliver significant capital receipts.

Trust. Customer satisfaction in local government has been high for a number of years. This will continue and increase as citizens become accustomed to interacting with councils remotely, but only if backed up by democratic accountability and reassurances from IT over data security.

Simplification. The corporate centre will explore new models for service delivery with both finance, legal and procurement able to demonstrate a clearer link between investment and measurable outcomes.

System. Joint corporate working and whole systems leadership, learnt through necessity during the pandemic, will become the norm amongst neighbour and partners. Watch out for regional digital ‘tzars’ across organisations.

Better workforce engagement. Staff will remember how they were treated and those who are highly engaged and supported will become more loyal, responsive and vital to HR in enhancing the employer brand. 

Nick Cole is a senior consultant with GatenbySanderson’s local government executive search practice