Lesson from the chair

By Thomas Bridge | 12 October 2016

It has only been three months since Gavin Jones was named interim chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (SOLACE), but his period at the top has been a busy time for the sector.

Whether dealing with the aftermath of the Brexit decision, adapting to changing policy from a new prime minister or simply dealing with the mounting pressures placed on local government, the past quarter of a year has not been a quiet one for council chief executives.

Yet Gavin is both proud of the recent work the SOLACE team has achieved and enthusiastic about the future under new president Jo Miller.

He says her record in local government means she has become a ‘very well respected’ figure both in the sector at a national level, while her passion around housing will be ‘very, very helpful’ for SOLACE given its prominence in government policymaking.

‘I’m really looking forward to working with Jo,’ Gavin says. ‘It’s going to be a great partnership. We’re probably going to bring different skills and experiences.’

‘She and I together – with the really excellent senior team, with people like Graeme McDonald, that we’ve got – we’re determined to work even harder to make SOLACE relevant to a wider membership, so it is the go-to place and a strong and listened to voice nationally and is taken seriously.

‘That’s where we want to take SOLACE and I’m convinced we will take it on further.’

Gavin adds that outgoing president Mark Rogers has been an ‘incredible ambassador’ for SOLACE and will leave a ‘great legacy’ for the sector.

‘As much as I’m really looking forward to working with Jo, in the short time I’ve had with Mark he’s been superb.

‘He’s been a great leader and a great icon for the sector,’ Gavin adds.

The SOLACE chair says such strong leadership from current and aspiring local authority chief executives has ‘never been more important’ to the sector and is confident Jo Miller will a bring bold new approach to the presidency.

‘We all know to secure the outcomes were looking for we have to work seamlessly with a whole series of partners. Leadership has become both more complicated but equally much more exciting, actually. Jo will bring that dimension to it and I know the work Deborah Cadman is doing around the leadership policy area, as well, will continue to be really important.’

Mounting pressure on local government makes strong governance invaluable. Gavin admits ‘the squeeze isn’t going to completely stop’ for councils as ‘demand continues to outstrip direct resources’.

‘From a leadership perspective, we’ve got to create the environment and direction both for our organisation but also for our partners to create that kind of innovative creativity that we’ve always been good at,’ he says.

‘The great thing for the local government sector, and SOLACE in particular, is that we’ve been doing that very, very effectively in more recent years in the way we responded to austerity. We’ve probably had the hardest push of anyone in the public sector but we keep responding creatively and innovatively.’

An ever-changing environment means senior council staff will need to constantly adapt their approach to difficult situations. Gavin stresses the importance of current and future chief executives using their skills to form partnerships and ‘break down organisational barriers’.

‘We have to lead by example. We can’t expect our people to do it if we don’t do it ourselves authentically,’ he stresses.

‘Authentic leadership is being able to work in ambiguity and uncertainty and to bring partners inclusively to the table. That’s our system leadership role that we have proven we’re very good at and we’ve got to keep doing it.’

The importance of collaborative working to Gavin is clear. His local government career stretches back 14 years but when pressed on what he’d like to see the sector doing by 2030, effective partnerships are central to his vision.

‘I hope and believe we will have a much more joined up public sector, so I think a lot of the organisational boundaries will no longer be there in many circumstances.’

The recent European referendum result has also had an impact on Gavin’s vision for the future of local government.

‘I hope we don’t lose the sense of place,’ he says. ‘Places are different, contexts are different. It is really, really important that local flavour, local ambitions and aspiration are still being reflected.’

Taking the example of his own county of Essex, Gavin lists a string of towns with ‘very different’ needs and opportunities. He stresses that a ‘one size fits all model simply doesn’t reflect the local needs and ambitions’ of communities.

‘The opportunity for public services to be relevant to local people is so critical. I’ve learnt in my 14 years in local government that if you’re not connected to the locality of a place, then I don’t think you’re understanding their real issues.

‘Following Brexit, we’ve learnt there are so many disenfranchised people that government maybe didn’t realise was the case. The response to that has to be a much closer working of government to the local level.

‘I think we have to take time to understand why Brexit happened, not judging it “good” or “bad” but why did so many people feel disenfranchised, if that is what it was. That has to be a learning for us, the public service providers, to make sure we continue to be relevant to all of our population.’

The upcoming weeks, months and years will all be crucial for chief executives when responding to such pressures. Yet with Gavin keen to stress his confidence in local government, it is clear the top team at SOLACE will be working hard to make the future a bright one.

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